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What Enron's political e-mails tell us about corporate lobbying

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During its investigation into wrongdoing into Enron, The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission made public almost 500,000 internal company e-mails. These e-mails provide a unique look into the workings of the company, including how the company conducted its political operations.

A few years ago, my friend and Georgetown Political Science Professor Daniel J. Hopkins approached me about analyzing what was in these e-mails. The results of our research are now published in the latest issue of Legislative Studies Quarterly, and a copy of our paper, “The Inside View: Using the Enron E-mail Archive to Understand Corporate Political Attention” can be downloaded here.

To sum up our findings briefly, the e-mails show Enron’s political operations as very engaged in the narrow details of policy , keeping close tabs on daily developments and devoting considerable resources to  agency rulemaking. Meanwhile, we found only sporadic discussion of campaign finance.

To quote from our conclusion:

In studying the attention Enron devoted to various political activities through its e-mails, we find very little evidence consistent with the transactional approach to political influence. Election-related e-mails make up only 1%of Enron’s political e-mails—and even within that 1%, there is scant evidence that Enron’s staffers considered themselves to be buying the support of candidates. Instead, we observe Enron’s political attention to be focused primarily on monitoring and formal participation in rule making and other executive-branch proceedings. Of the e-mails, 51% focused either on the executive branch (10%), administrative agencies (22%), or advisory commissions (19%)—more than three times the 15% that focused on legislative contacting. Such observations lend descriptive support to the conception of lobbying as engaging in the day-to-day policy details of Washington. The heavy emphasis on formal participation and providing policy information is consistent with theories that view lobbying as information transmission, with influence deriving from making a compelling case. Certainly, Enron had the capacity to make political contributions, and it did so. But perhaps its greater resource was its monopoly on policy-relevant information about electricity, natural gas, and communications markets, information that policy makers could not easily obtain elsewhere. The frequency of monitoring, the large number of legislative meetings, and the special attention to members of energy-related committees in Congress suggest support for a view that treats lobbyists as allies of lawmakers and their staffs as well. Studying influence in politics is notoriously difficult and business influence especially so. But by making extensive use of Enron’s internal documents, this article can extend the insights of survey-based research by observing where the firm directed its political energies and attention.
 

Honestly, that Enron devoted so little of its internal conversations to campaign finance surprised us. And in one case we did see, we were surprised that see that an Enron’s PAC chair gave a contribution to a member of Congress without even knowing his vote on a key issue. Here’s that e-mail:

Nick Lampson called and asked for a contribution. I committed to one without knowing about his vote on PNTR. I will keep my word by making an individual contribution but will also communicate to him that in my capacity as Enron PAC chair I cannot authorize the PAC to make a contribution as a result of that vote.

Here’s another juicy tidbit we picked up reading the e-mails: “As an August 2000 e-mail details, Enron had an advisory council that included political figures such as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, future Bush economic advisor Lawrence Lindsay, and economist Paul Krugman.” (There are more fun tidbits in the paper, so we hope you read it)

If there is a takeaway point, it’s how much corporate lobbying appears to involve the ceaseless attention to actual policy detail – to being closely involved in shaping and framing arguments, working with allies in Congress, and being very involved in the formal regulatory process.

The close attention that Enron paid to the regulatory process highlights how important the regulatory process is to companies, which is one of the key reasons that we at Sunlight have launched Docket Wrench, our new site dedicated to making the regulatory rulemaking process easier to understand and follow.

Companies like Enron, which spent $5.1 million lobbying in its final year of operation (2001), have the resources to continually monitor and participate in all the legislative and rulemaking procedures, supplying research, technical expertise, and forceful argument. Hopefully, with Docket Wrench, it will now be at least a little easier for those who don’t have those kinds of multi-million budgets to dig into the regulatory rulemaking process as well.