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The Enron Benefit

January 23, 2002

The alleged misdeeds of Enron Corp. are so broad, so glaring, they may paradoxically have a cleansing influence on politics. Their most remarkable effect may be to push Congress the last inch toward real campaign finance reform.

Both major parties have become addicted to so-called soft money, funds raised through a loophole that evades the $1,000 personal contribution limit and $5,000 political action committee limit. Although most politicians have called for reform over the years, their words are a far cry from actually giving up a system that has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into their treasuries. In the 1999-2000 election cycle, the Democratic Party spent $244 million in soft money, while the Republican Party spent $252 million.

Now comes Enron, whose torrent of donations to the Bush presidential campaign and all over Capitol Hill has dirtied the very people charged with investigating the energy trader's spectacular downfall.

The House Republican leadership has not yet ended its resistance to bringing campaign finance reform to a vote, but the shame of Enron may gain reformers the last few signatures needed to reach the magic 218, a bare House majority. That would force a vote. A twin of the bill sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) easily passed the Senate last year, but a parliamentary rules blockade stopped it in the House.

The bill would make a number of beneficial changes to the way campaigns are financed. It would outlaw soft money contributions, which were originally intended to finance "party-building" activities like getting out the vote but ended up going almost directly to campaign coffers. There is still debate over raising the current limits on individual contributions.

Passage of the bill is not a certainty once it reaches the House floor. Opponents may try to substitute weaker legislation or employ "poison pill" amendments--additions so unpalatable that even supporters might vote against the bill.

The war on terrorism may have briefly refocused lawmakers' efforts, but campaign finance has put the spotlight back on the political process. The energy that Congress has devoted to evading campaign finance reform suggests the degree to which lavish donations have corrupted the lawmaking process. If Shays-Meehan passes in or near its original form, something good will have come out of Enron.

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