There are no blue dresses to analyze in this one, or interns in berets to quiz. But make no mistake. The Enron scandal is the real thing–a window on the nexus of money and politics in Washington that is revealing our corrupted electoral, legislative and regulatory infrastructure.
Perhaps that’s why the Bush White House is pushing the line that this is a business scandal, as opposed to a political one. But with mounting evidence that Enron executives were dictating Bush Administration appointments and policies affecting their company in particular and energy policy in general, Karl Rove is having a hard time getting his spin up to speed. Sure, there’s a business component to the Enron affair. But, like most corporations these days, Enron was able to practice its brand of cutthroat cowboy capitalism only because of the ties it nurtured with the political class, which sets up the playing field on which businesses “compete.” The Enron scandal reveals not just the lengths to which Wall Street and corporate America will go for obscene profits and personal enrichment at the expense of employees, shareholders and taxpayers but also the lengths to which politicians from Bush on down will go to help them.
Enron is about values, but not about the kinds of sexual peccadilloes condemned by Kenneth Starr and Ralph Reed–a notable beneficiary of Enron’s largesse–or the traditional John Wayne-style flag-waving values of George W. Bush. As Michael Tomasky writes in the Washington Post, “‘Values’ can mean something else now, like integrity in business and government. It means that a president who ran on a promise of ‘restoring dignity’ to the White House ought to tell the truth about how long he’s known the CEO who has been his biggest corporate backer. It means that the vice president should recognize as a simple ethical matter that the people…have a right to know which lobbyists he met with while formulating a major policy, just as Republicans demanded similar information from Clinton’s health policy panel back in 1993.”
If the political system works, if the opposition actually engages in opposition, if there is any justice–three huge ifs–the Enron scandal ought to shake Washington to the core and send tremors through the 2002 and 2004 elections. But that will happen only if Congress gets serious about performing its intended role in what is still supposed to be a system of checks and balances. The Senate must be aggressive not merely in issuing subpoenas to former Enron chief Ken Lay and his cronies but in pursuing the political players who associated with Lay. Representative John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat who is the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, got to the heart of the matter when he announced that he will ask Rove to provide any information linking the Bush 2000 campaign with Enron. But Conyers will need a lot of help preventing the executive branch from weaving a cloak of invisibility around its inner operations (see Russ Baker on page 11).
Secrecy is a favored tool of the imperial presidency, and the Bush Administration’s stonewalling on its Enron connections signals that it’s declaring war on openness and is bent on quashing this scandal by any means. How about, for instance, distracting us with an endless war on an “axis of evil”?
Democrats must not be deterred by the Bush camp’s attempts to erect a firewall of false patriotism as its defense against investigation. There are no longer any legal, moral or political grounds for not unleashing a multipronged, wide-ranging investigation into the Washington political culture that allowed an Enron–and how many more like it?–to operate unchecked. We already know a lot about who legally gave what to which politician, who lost pensions, who made out like bandits, how the scam worked, whose wheels were greased by soft money.
Now it’s time for Congress to put the pieces together. Democrats in Congress should join reformer Republicans–yes, there are a few–to expose this scandal for what it is: a gamy display of excessive corporate power and a lack of economic democracy and government oversight. Congress needs to remember it’s representing the people and deal with the tough issues raised by the cozy collusion between government and business (it should start with campaign finance reform in the House now and move on to putting labor and consumers on corporate boards, restoring defined benefits pensions, penalty-taxing excessive executive salaries, stopping stock price inflation and holding tricky auditors financially liable). The key vote on campaign finance is set for February 13. The outcome should tell us how serious the reform talk is.