I confess. When I read the editorials on Enron, I understand the words, but the larger meaning sails right past me. Why does every elite newspaper and talking-head sophisticate in the country think it's obvious that this mess proves the need to pass campaign finance "reform"?
"There is one way that Congress can begin to cleanse itself of the Enron mess," the editors of The New York Times declare. "That is to make the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill its top priority."
Maybe I've been eating paint chips by mistake, but allow me to share my confusion.
First, despite what we hear every day, the corporation known as Enron never gave a dime to any politician. It's been against the law for corporations to give money directly to federal candidates since 1907. Why word of this hasn't penetrated newsrooms in nearly a century is a mystery.
Now, it's true, employees of Enron can -- and did -- form a PAC with their own personal money, which gave cash to candidates. You might say, "Aha! Isn't that the same thing?"
Well, not quite. Among other things, it's illegal for a company to force its employees to give money to a politician or to compensate them those donations.
But even if it is bad for private citizens to pool money with their co-workers in order to support a candidate or cause, how do you propose eliminating the practice? Call a PAC by another name and you still have citizens giving money to a politician.
More important, why is this so offensive? Isn't the organized support for a candidate or party an essential component of a healthy democracy?
Yes ... but, you might say, corporations give so much money it throws the whole system out of whack.
"Even the most oblivious politician can sense the outrage in the Enron scandal," editorializes the San Francisco Chronicle. "Enron sprinkled about $6 million on Washington politicians in the last decade or so, about half of it as soft money."
In return, this money got Enron unprecedented access and influence in the corridors of power according to analysis by the Chronicle (and the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, etc.).
Putting aside the fact that this alleged favor-buying didn't buy the favor of keeping them from going belly-up, Enron's $6 million in donations over the last dozen years only seems like a lot of money out of context. In reality, it's barely noteworthy. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, for example, gave out $3.5 million in 2001 alone.
Or consider Emily's List, the humorless feminist group that funds humorless feminist candidates across the country. Last year, they gave out $7.7 million -- $1.7 more than Enron did in all the years since 1990. When I see "reformers" freak out over the pernicious influence of money from "Big Women" the way they do about cash from "Big Oil," I'll know they're serious.
And speaking of Big Oil, according to The Center for Responsive Politics, since 1990, the oil and gas industry has spent $133 million on campaigns, of which Enron's $6 million is a drop in the bucket. But before you get outraged, labor groups have spent $351 million over the same period.
This is all fine by me -- so long as everyone discloses it. There should be more money in politics, not less. Americans spend more money on potato chips than we do on politics.
Meanwhile, by eliminating "soft money" from politics, Shays-Meehan would make politics worse, not better, for two reasons. First, it would castrate political parties -- making politicians more dependent on direct donations from the rich and powerful. And, second, it would ban so-called issue ads.
Let's take "issue ads" first. Shays Meehan will make it illegal for Emily's List, the Sierra Club, the NRA, the Mormons, the Muppets -- anybody -- to run advertisements supporting a candidate anywhere close to election day.
Obviously, this is incumbent protection. It's also a sop to the big-league media because they'd be the only organizations allowed to publicly comment on a candidate. I am at a loss as to how this is progress.
I am also at a loss about what is bad about giving money to political parties anyway. Rather than give the same old arguments about the Constitution, freedom and democracy, let me give you one small illustration as to why I don't think soft money is
Paul Krugman is an economist and columnist at The New York Times. Krugman was recently scalded by revelations (made by born-again muckraker Andrew Sullivan) that he received $50,000 dollars from Enron without disclosing it. To put it mildly, Krugman's been hysterical about how this money didn't corrupt him.
Even though I think he's a smug and intellectually dishonest writer, I believe him. But if $50,000 isn't going to corrupt one individual, why must we believe that the $114,000 Enron and its employees gave to George Bush's presidential campaign corrupted the president, the vice president, the treasury secretary, the entire administration and the GOP?
Bush's campaign spent $193 million dollars, which means Ken Lay bought the entire administration for .0006 percent of that. Oh, but wait. Enron went bankrupt, so it didn't buy anybody.