The Enron Effect

Capitol Enron Capitol graphic generic

If you had to pick one place Washington politicians don't want their picture taken, Enron headquarters is it, reports CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer, and the reason why isn't hard to understand.

"Basically Enron screwed a lot of people and the very people who did this were out trying to buy off a lot of political votes using corporate treasury money," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.

That's the embarrassing part for Washington. What used to be its favorite company passed out millions all over town.

"They were being generous because they wanted to buy influence, which they got, and they wanted to buy access, which they got," said Shays.

And they paid plenty — more than $6 million over 10 years. George W. Bush alone got more than $600,000, but money also went to three-quarters of the Senate and almost half the members of the House, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The company's influence ran so deep that 212 of the 248 members of the Congressional committees now investigating Enron received financial campaign contributions from Enron or their accountants, Arthur Andersen.

But here's the twist: When reformers who have been trying to outlaw corporate contributions for years finally got the support of 218 members Thursday — the number needed to force a vote on campaign reform — they said it was for one reason: congressional embarrassment over Enron.

And guess who thinks the legislation could pass? The man who has blocked it in the past, the Republican Speaker of the House.

"I would suspect that if they have 218 signatures for a discharge, they would have enough to pass the bill," said Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Reformers take nothing for granted. Real reform followed the Watergate scandal but after that, whether it was the Keating Five — politicians linked to a crooked investor — or more recently money raised at Buddhist temples and White House coffees, reforms always failed.

But this time may be different. Politicians are racing to give back their Enron contributions. Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison gave hers to an Enron employee fund.

"I will give my entire $100,000 to that fund," the Republican announced.

And Florida Congresswoman Corrine Brown says Washington has finally learned its lesson.

"It comes across that there's something in the milk that's not clean and we need to clean up the system," said Brown.

For sure, it's a big jug of milk. Fueled by unlimited, unregulated contributions from corporations and unions, spending on the last elections topped a staggering $3.2 billion.

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