Since the fall of the House of Enron, Republicans have been polishing their populist patter. George W. Bush cast aside his patron, Enron CEO Ken “Kenny Boy” Lay, and proclaimed himself the champion of executive rectitude. When the Corporate and Auditing Accountability Act passed in the House, Republican Richard Baker crowed, “We have taken action. We have stood up to Wall Street.”
This crowd has no shame. The bill–which lobbyists for big-five accounting firm Deloitte and Touche praised for not going “overboard”–fails to ban accountants from peddling consulting work to the companies they audit, fails to shut the revolving door between accountants and the companies they audit and fails to create an accounting oversight board with subpoena power and independence. As Representative John LaFalce noted, “The opportunity to enact meaningful reform had been passed, eluded and avoided.”
The House pension bill was even more disgraceful. As Representative George Miller noted, it “doesn’t deal with the lessons of Enron.” It doesn’t put employees on the boards of their pension funds, doesn’t guard workers against biased investment advice and doesn’t require immediate notification of large stock sales by high-level executives. Worse, it carves a huge new loophole in pension protections, and as Daniel Halperin, a pension law expert at Harvard Law School, notes, it will “basically gut” current rules that protect average and low-wage workers. After Enron, where twenty-eight executives walked off with more than $1 billion while workers watched their retirement savings vanish, the Republican version of reform will make it easier for the big guys to pocket lavish benefits while the workers get stiffed. The provision, no surprise, was championed by the business lobby and supported by Bill Thomas, the corporate bag man who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.
Republicans are certain that token reforms and stentorian rhetoric will give them cover while they continue to bank the contributions of a grateful financial and business community. Many Democrats opportunistically voted for the Republican bills after their tougher reforms were voted down on virtual party line votes.
Now the Republican “reforms” head to the Senate, where Democrats are in control, but Enron conservatives in both parties are legion. Ted Kennedy offers a real alternative on pension reform, but Democratic finance committee chairman Max Baucus is already talking about a compromise bill that would accept much of the corporate agenda.
Meanwhile, House and Senate conferees are putting the finishing touches on a bankruptcy bill pushed by the credit card industry; it will make it much harder for working people to get a fresh start at a time when millions are losing their jobs. Democratic Senate leaders could (but probably won’t) demonstrate their solidarity with working people by burying the bankruptcy bill instead of passing it. The power of money, alas, speaks to both parties.
Millions of Americans are appalled by the bilking of Enron’s workers. And millions are concerned about their own pension savings. Progressives and labor should raise hell about sham reforms that actually help the big guys screw their workers. If Enron conservatives in both parties are exposed, voters might show them this fall that they are paying more attention than anyone thought.