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March 26, 2013

What secret e-mails from Enron teach us about influencing politicians

In 1999, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) denounced “a campaign finance system that is nothing less than an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.” Judging from the polls, such perceptions about lobbyists buying influence with campaign contributions were widely shared, even before Citizens United. In a 2006 Los Angeles Times poll, 65 percent of Americans favored a prohibition on lobbyist-hosted political fundraisers, versus just 19 percent who thought a prohibition would infringe on Constitutional rights.

But are campaign contributions actually central to corporate lobbying efforts? If the now-bankrupt Enron Corporation is any indication, the answer is no.

Assessing the role of campaign contributions in corporate political strategy is a tricky business. If elected officials and lobbyists see themselves as involved in a transaction, with contributions buying favorable policies, both parties have a strong incentive to keep the transaction secret.

That’s where the Enron Corporation comes in. In the fall of 2001, the energy company famously descended into bankruptcy. The wave of accounting scandals and corporate fraud that engulfed Enron made it quite clear that the company’s leadership was willing to break the rules if there was a profit to book. As an advocate of energy deregulation, Enron had extensive contacts with elected officials; its C.E.O, Ken Lay, was a close personal friend of the Bush family. In 2001, it spent $5.1 million on lobbying, making it one of the 50 largest spenders on lobbying that year.”

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Read full Washington Post article here

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