Enron Fallout Prompts Campaign Finance Reform

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(Host) Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders sees a small silver lining in the unfolding Enron scandal.

Enron courted politicians and gave millions of dollars to both Democrats and Republicans. Sanders says Enron’s collapse may finally force Congress to consider campaign finance reform.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Sanders is a member of the House Financial Services Committee. This week, the committee was supposed to hear from former Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay. On Sunday, Lay cancelled his congressional appearance. Sanders says if Lay doesn’t show up voluntarily, Congress should subpoena him to testify.

Enron gave nearly $6 million to both Republicans and Democrats over the past year. Sanders says Enron’s political influence has now forced members of both parties to consider campaign finance reform. He says 218 House members recently signed a petition to force reform legislation out of committee and on to the floor for a vote:

(Sanders) “It is interesting that maybe a silver lining of the Enron scandal is that Congress has had to take a good look at itself, and that finally we may end the absurdity of a situation in which large corporations can pour hundreds of millions of dollars into both political parties.”

(Dillon) Sanders also waded into a Vermont campaign finance issue. Governor Howard Dean wants to fill a hole in the state budget by taking $800,000 from a state campaign finance fund.

The money is supposed to pay for the campaigns of candidates who qualify for public support. In the 2000 campaign, Progressive Party candidate Anthony Pollina – a Sanders ally – used almost $300,000 from the fund to run for governor.

Sanders says that the Vermont Legislature should leave the fund alone. He suggests that the major parties are taking advantage of the budget crisis to weaken campaign finance reform.

(Sanders) “It’s not just Republicans who don’t want campaign finance reform. When it becomes politically uncomfortable, politically disadvantageous for the Democrats, suddenly they don’t want campaign finance reform¿. People can say anything they want. I think the issue is political, it’s not financial. You’ve got a rainy day fund. Apparently it’s OK in this state to give huge tax breaks to corporations, to wealthy people, but somehow we can’t come up with the relatively small amount of money we need to keep this very important program healthy and growing.”

(Dillon) Last week, Sanders wrote to the leadership in the Vermont Legislature and urged them not to raid the campaign fund. He says it sends the wrong message to Congress if Vermont appears willing to weaken its campaign reform law.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.

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