As the Enron story unfolds, we are reminded why the U.S. Supreme Court, in its famous 1976 Buckley vs. Valeo decision, said that the appearance of corruption, not just corruption itself, justifies congressional action to place limits on our campaign-finance system.
The court understood that public mistrust of government is destructive to democracy; from a constitutional point of view, it hardly matters whether that mistrust is based on actual misconduct or simply its appearance.
Congress must address public confidence in government at this crucial time by finally passing campaign-finance reform.
In the case of Enron’s collapse, the need to address public mistrust is paramount for Congress and the Bush administration as they investigate alleged wrongdoing.
When a corporation such as Enron leaves devastated employees and fleeced shareholders in its wake, the public depends on Congress and the administration to determine what went wrong and defend the public interest.
But the potential for a conflict of interest is clear.
Many of the elected officials now asked to sit in judgment of Enron, including members of Congress, the attorney general and the president, have been accepting and even asking for campaign contributions from Enron for years.
The political parties have pocketed more than $3.5 million in unregulated, unlimited soft money from Enron since 1991.
Congress must move forward with the investigations into Enron’s conduct, despite the potential conflict of interest that political contributions might pose.
In fact, this is familiar territory for Congress. Everyday, members of Congress accept huge campaign contributions with one hand, and vote on issues affecting their contributors with the other. And everyday, the public naturally questions whether their representatives are giving special treatment to the wealthy interests that fund their campaigns and bankroll their political parties.
In the case of the Enron investigations, each member of Congress must decide whether simply donating Enron contributions to charity or even recusal is the appropriate way to attempt to address public skepticism.
Enron deftly used the campaign-finance system to its advantage long before the story of its collapse made its political contributions so well known. Enron’s executives had a hot line to government leaders shaping energy policy, and even reportedly were assisted by high government officials with a debt owed to Enron by the government of India.
The Enron scandal illustrates the permanent conflict of interest that political contributions — especially unlimited soft money contributions to the parties — have created for elected officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
In the case of soft money, both parties have gladly accepted money from officials at Enron and the auditing firm of Arthur Andersen. Those soft money contributions compromise the integrity of members of both parties as inquiries into these corporations’ conduct get under way.
Attorney General John Ashcroft’s decision to recuse himself from the investigation is confirmation of this deep conflict of interest. The Bush administration must take every step possible to remove the appearance of a conflict in all aspects of this case, and if evidence of impropriety by any high-ranking official arises, it should immediately appoint a special counsel.
But however hard Congress and the administration might work to maintain the integrity of the investigations into Enron’s actions, they are hindered from the start by the staggering sums of money Enron poured into the political system.
We are just beginning to understand the depth of the accounting and financial scandals Enron and Arthur Andersen have set in motion, and it will take time to decide how Congress should work to prevent similar problems in the future.
But we don’t need months to decide how to address the potential conflict of interest that unlimited political contributions create for members of Congress and presidential administrations. The Senate passed the McCain-Feingold bill to eliminate the soft money system last April, and the House is poised to debate its counterpart, the Shays-Meehan bill.
While eliminating soft money will not cure the campaign-finance system of every ill, it will end a system of unlimited donations that has blatantly put political access and influence up for sale.
Enron is just one of the many corporations, unions and wealthy individuals that has exploited the soft-money loophole to buy influence with Congress and the executive branch at the very highest levels.
While Enron’s demise has highlighted some of the worst failings of government, perhaps it can also, ironically, restore some faith in government by affecting real change.
One of the first things that can be done is to shut down the soft-money system. Both Congress and the Bush administration should take seriously the public’s concern about their potential conflict of interest.
By passing campaign-finance reform, they can begin to regain some of the public’s trust.
Russ Feingold is a Wisconsin Democrat. He and Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, are sponsoring legislation that would ban soft money.