The Bush administration might be as pure as Caesar's wife in this Enron thing. It might have done nothing unethical or illegal in return for the millions the company plowed into Bush's campaign and the Republican Party.
But it doesn't matter. The heavy donations raise suspicions about impropriety, which is enough to spark an investigation. And an investigation is enough to turn what might be a benign story into a front-page scandal for the president and his staff.
What more will it take to convince the Republican holdouts in Washington that America needs campaign-finance reform?
A campaign-finance reform bill is pending in the House of Representatives. It would ban "soft" money, the unlimited and unregulated donations to political parties. The Senate has already passed a version of the bill, but the Republican leadership in the House is refusing to let the bill go to the floor for a vote.
As they stonewall, investigators and the press will be excavating the many money trails between Enron and the White House, looking for quid pro quos.
No one believes Enron gave millions to the Republican Party out of patriotic fervor. Or that Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay donated $100,000 toward Bush's inaugural balls so he could get a good seat.
A businessperson expects a return on an investment. During Bush's two gubernatorial races in Texas, Lay personally contributed $122,000 to the campaigns. He and other Enron folks, along with Enron's political action committee, gave $980,615 to Bush's presidential campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The company donated money coast to coast, counting among its recipients 71 current senators and 188 current members of the House. But it is Bush with whom Enron allied itself most closely. The connections seem endless.
Top contributors to Bush's presidential campaign included the employees of the law firm Vinson & Elkins. Enron, as it happens, is a Vinson & Elkins client. When James Baker and Robert Mosbacher left the elder Bush's Cabinet, Enron hired them as consultants. Baker reportedly hustled Enron contracts while accompanying the elder Bush on a Persian Gulf War victory tour of Kuwait.
Yet, Enron is just one of many corporations and labor unions that shovel money into political campaigns. It's the way business gets done in Washington under the current campaign-finance system. In the first half of 2001, for example, Lockheed Martin contributed $550,875 and Boeing $468,000 to political campaigns and parties. The two companies are vying for the $200 billion government contract to build the strike fighter aircraft.
The airlines, as another example, collectively contributed almost $7 million during the 2000 campaign. When business plummeted last fall, the industry won a $20 billion government bailout. Not a bad return on investment.
The reform bill in the House will not eliminate influence peddling and backroom deals. The rich will always have greater access to power than the rest of us. But the less money that exchanges hands, the less likelihood of both corruption and the appearance of corruption, and the less likelihood that our elected officials will be embroiled in expensive and distracting investigations.
The supporters of reform in the House of Representatives need 218 signatures to force a vote on the bill. They're three shy. Not only should President Bush push for this bill to pass, business leaders should as well. They saw what happened when Enron executives tried to call in a favor. They apparently were rebuffed, a violation of the unspoken pact between politician and major donor.
Maybe Bush's men refused to help out of concern for ethics or fear of scandal. Or maybe they simply understood that such help would serve no purpose: With empty pockets, Enron no longer had anything the Bush administration needed.
Joan Ryan writes a weekly column for Pilot-Tribune readers.