Enron and the President: Who Cares?

The collapse of Enron has triggered a new round of political recriminations about energy policy.

While criminal investigators try to sort out what happened in Houston, political investigators try to sort out what happened in Washington-in particular, what happened last year when the vice president 's energy task force was putting together the administration's much-ballyhooed national energy strategy.

The administration stands accused of allowing Enron to essentially write the president's energy plan in return for lavish campaign contributions. Hoping to get to the bottom of this, the congressional General Accounting Office recently announced that they would sue in court to force the administration to cough-up documents detailing who met with whom and what was discussed in the course of the task force's deliberations.

Let me save you the price of admission to this hyperbolic bit of political theater: it doesn't matter. First of all, let's assume for the sake of argument that Enron's previous support for the president had something to do with the policies the Bush administration sent to Congress. If those policies were otherwise meritorious, are they any less so because Enron lobbied for them?

Alternatively, if those policy proposals were ill advised, are they any more so because Enron championed them?

This dust-up isn't about the merits of Bush's energy plan. It's about the motivations behind the Bush energy plan. But what difference does motive make? If venal motives were behind proposals that otherwise makes sense, who cares? Alternatively, if good intentions animate proposals that would prove disastrous, so what?

The reason some people seem to care, of course, is that it provides a shortcut to critical thinking. If bad motives animate policy proposals, the theory goes, then there's probably something wrong with the ideas being put forward. Since it's far easier (and far better political theater) to sniff around for bad motives than it is to figure out the ins-and-outs of something complicated like electricity regulation, the former is more prevalent in public discourse than the latter.

While superficially compelling, this way of thinking doesn't hold water even if you're a left-of-center type who doesn't trust big business. Consider the fact that Enron supported an energetic campaign to restrict greenhouse gas emissions in the United States because it smelled a lot of profit opportunities for the company if the federal government were to impose a greenhouse gas emissions trading program. Does that fact by itself cast suspicion on the case for signing the Kyoto Protocol?

Likewise, big waste disposal companies about a decade ago strongly supported new rules to tighten environmental standards at existing landfills because it would bury "mom-and-pop" disposal firms and bankrupt a number of municipally owned dumps that, together, would help them "cartelize" the industry and fatten their profits. Does that necessarily undermine the case for tougher environmental standards?

The whole campaign, moreover, takes on the character of a witch-hunt.

Unless we somehow discern how to read minds, there's no way to know for certain what motivates people to do or say what they do. The administration, for instance, contends that the ideas forwarded in its energy plan are there because it thinks they're important for America's energy security. Their critics argue that they're only there because they were bribed to put them there. Tallying the number of meetings with lobbyists cannot possibly settle the matter.

Maybe the administration was convinced by the lobbyists that these ideas had merit. Maybe the administration only thought it prudent to talk to energy companies before drafting an energy plan. Maybe the administration was less intent on receiving information at these meetings than they were in making supporters feel like they were having a say in policy and thus a stake in the final product that was already being drawn-up. Maybe companies like Enron were giving money to the Bush campaign because they agreed with the ideas forwarded by that campaign.

And, yes, maybe political horse-trading was going on. But if it was, it almost certainly was a subtext to conversations that rarely, if ever, are so crudely put as "do this for a $100,000 campaign contribution - oh, OK, consider it done." The point is, we'll never know and won't be in any better position to know if/when the administration releases the information that the GAO wants to examine.

At the end of the day, this corruption charge being peddled by some of the administration's critics is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. At best, it's a pointless diversion. At worst, it's a political smear job. While I have more complaint with than praise for the energy plan the administration offered last spring, bringing in the equivalent of moral telepaths does not strengthen anyone's case.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute.