What Enron’s E-mails Teach Us about Lobbying

by Dan Hopkins on March 24, 2013 · 2 comments

in Blogs

Popular discussions of lobbying focus on quid pro quo transactions between legislators and lobbyists, with campaign contributions as the currency of choice. And if any company had the connections, incentives and willingness to engage in those transactions, it was Enron. But in Enron’s case at least, the company’s employees devoted far more attention to monitoring political events and formally participating in bureaucratic processes than to planning campaign contributions.

That’s from my latest post at Wonkblog, describing research (ungated) Lee Drutman and I undertook analyzing thousands of e-mails from the now-defunct Enron Corporation.  More is here.


RobC March 24, 2013 at 7:46 pm

It’s no surprise that Enron’s lobbying activity was significantly focused on bureaucratic processes. That’s what one would expect of participants in industries that are heavily regulated (such as energy) or indeed, that are affected by regulatory actions even if not directly regulated themselves. It’s also consistent with what most lobbyists and trade associations do across the board, as any of them would surely acknowledge. As the federal and state legislatures have chosen to confer on bureaucrats important authority over businesses, businesses’ attention has predictably been drawn to monitoring and, to the extent feasible, influencing bureaucratic decision-making.

There were a couple of assertions in your Wonkblog piece that are, however, open to debate. First, you state, “Enron focused a tiny share of its political attention to campaigns and contributions, indicating that it didn’t see those contributions as a worth much effort—or as a primary source of political leverage.” The suggested correlation between the number of emails that referenced campaigns and contributions and how much importance or leverage Enron believed those contributions had is, as far as I can tell, merely your assumption, though it’s presented in Wonkblog as gospel. (I couldn’t find any corresponding assertion in your scholarly article.)

Second, you conclude your Wonkblog piece by stating, “We commonly think of corporate lobbyists’ checkbooks as their primary source of influence, and Congress as their primary target. But in doing so, we forget the importance of the proprietary information they bring to the table, and the connections that corporations forge with the bureaucrats who regulate them.” Your use of the term “proprietary information” got my attention, because as you know that’s a term with important legal and regulatory baggage. I looked in vain to your scholarly article to find any reference to proprietary information. That Enron was providing information to bureaucrats as part of their decision-making process is unexceptionable. How much of that information was proprietary is something that perhaps you know from your content analysis of the emails or from other research into Enron’s communications with regulatory agencies. If so, I hope it’s something you’ll share in the future.

Sebastian March 24, 2013 at 10:56 pm

WaPo readers are _not_ happy with you ;-) .
I tried to comment there, but it seemed like any reasonable discussion would be drowned in the screams of outrage, so: Your discussion of the importance of specialized information (maybe a better term than proprietary – see Rob’s comment?) is very close to Pepper Culpepper’s view in Quiet Politics. Since he studies very difference cases, that seems to me to signficantly strengthen your argument.

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