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THE FALL OF ENRON | NEWS ANALYSIS

Hearings Playing as Political Theater

Congress: Lawmakers are using the Enron investigations as a forum to show that they are part of the solution, not the problem.

January 29, 2002|RICHARD SIMON and EDMUND SANDERS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Congress is about to unleash a flurry of hearings on the Enron Corp. bankruptcy in which lawmakers will hear hours of testimony on derivatives, off-balance-sheet partnerships and accounting arcana.

But evidence and testimony are not the sole purpose of these events. Even more than with high-profile hearings in the past, the upcoming sessions have been seized upon by lawmakers eager to dramatize that they are part of the remedy for the fiasco rather than, as eager recipients of Enron contributions, part of the problem.

"It may very well be that having received these contributions, they feel the spotlight on them. And they're going to be more aggressive than they would otherwise be to try to separate themselves from Enron and Arthur Andersen," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based watchdog organization.

Of the 248 members of investigating House and Senate committees, Noble's group found, 212 received contributions from Enron; its former accountant, Andersen; or both.

Officially, Congress is gathering the facts about the Enron bankruptcy case to determine what new laws may be necessary. The hearings, including one today, are looking into a wide range of subjects, such as new rules governing accountants, pension reforms and financial disclosure by corporations.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Monday asked Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, to hold a hearing into "what role Enron had in the California energy crisis with respect to market manipulation and price gouging."

But the hearings are as much political theater as investigative process, and nearly a dozen committees have claimed a spot onstage.

Former Enron Chairman Kenneth L. Lay is next week's star witness; he is scheduled to appear before both a House panel and a Senate committee that says it will bow out of the investigation once Lay testifies. Other panels are competing for executives who, like fired Andersen auditor David B. Duncan last week, are unlikely to say anything.

Congressional offices have been churning out news releases, laboring to come up with the most TV-worthy sound bites. (The winner last week was Pennsylvania Rep. James C. Greenwood's line to Duncan: "Enron robbed the bank, Arthur Andersen provided the getaway car, and they say you were at the wheel.")

Then, with cameras clicking away, Duncan invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

"Committee hearings are all about drama and TV," said Marshall Wittmann, a political scholar with the conservative Hudson Institute.

One House committee will hold a hearing in which all 57 of its members will be allowed to deliver opening statements, usually five minutes apiece.

"Everybody is falling over each other to pick away at Enron," said Robert Bennett, the energy company's Washington attorney, whose clients have included former President Clinton. "I do not question the legitimacy and right of Congress to make inquiry. But I think they should complete their investigations before they complete their conclusions."

However, Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution think tank, said: "It's perfectly appropriate, and in fact necessary, for Congress" to investigate.

"This is an issue that touches on many public policy concerns. It's probably the most serious matter that they have investigated in a long time."

A key difference between these hearings and others--Whitewater, for example--is that lawmakers have avoided partisanship so far.

That could change next week when Lay, a political patron of President Bush, appears Monday before House and Senate panels.

The political importance of hearings is well understood.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee and a potential Bush rival in 2004, has recalled being "captivated by television coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings and Sen. Estes Kefauver's investigation of organized crime" in the 1950s. Kefauver's hearings gave the Tennessee senator a springboard for several unsuccessful attempts at the Democratic presidential nomination.

"Every committee chairman is looking for that confrontation such as we saw with Howard Baker during Watergate: 'What did you know and when did you know it?' " Wittmann said, referring to the former senator. "I suspect that one congressman may utter the same line [from the McCarthy hearings] to an Enron executive: 'Have you no sense of decency, sir?' "

"Since the public has a short attention span, effective investigations have to obtain the media spotlight and hammer home the point day by day in order to influence public opinion in favor of whatever reform seems necessary to cure the ills exposed," said Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie.

Frequently, there is competition among various committees to be the first to take testimony from a key witness.

"Over the years in congressional investigations, there has been competition between the House and Senate, and sometimes in the same body," said Michael J. Madigan, former chief counsel to Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), whom he aided in supervising hearings on campaign finance abuse and reform.

Such rivalry may explain why, last week, the House Energy and Commerce and the Senate Governmental Affairs committees held hearings on the same morning.

One congressional aide said it appeared that the House hearing--which included Duncan's dramatic refusal to answer questions--was intentionally scheduled to upstage the Senate hearing, which focused on broader public policy issues.

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