Posted: Feb 21, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- At last weekend's California Democratic convention in Los Angeles, delegates received "Dick Cheney" buttons with the two "e's" in Cheney replaced by the discredited Enron logo. This convention souvenir quickly traveled across the continent to Washington, where prominent Democrats are determined to turn the collapse of the huge energy company into a political scandal. While Cheney buttons were distributed, I asked newly installed House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi on CNN whether the lack of a smoking gun connecting Enron's disgrace to the Bush administration meant this was no political scandal. "Oh, I don't think so," the House's second-ranking Democrat replied, adding, "I think that the public sees that with access, they (Enron) got opportunity and they had an impact." Pelosi, carefully considering her words, reflects her party's outlook. Democrats have not been dissuaded by failure to discover administration complicity in the scandalous behavior of Enron's top brass. Instead, they seize on any Bush official's connection with the company as evidence of impropriety. This can be called Enronism, actually less solidly grounded in reality than McCarthyism was a half-century ago. The Democrats insinuate that because some, but certainly not all, of the company's energy goals are identical to President Bush's, a corrupt symbiosis is at play. Since there is no visible connection between government policy decisions and Enron's deceptions, this is Enronism. Fragmentary links between Bush officials and Enron are transmogrified into "cash-and-carry" corruption. Enronism's extreme practitioner is Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, who as Senate Commerce Committee chairman is conducting one of innumerable congressional Enron investigations. At age 80, Hollings attracts little attention when he rants about the budget or international trade. However, his claims that Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Budget Director Mitch Daniels were paid by Enron subjected his undocumented allegations to unaccustomed scrutiny. Since neither O'Neill nor Daniels ever was on the Enron payroll, Hollings was challenged on CBS's "Face the Nation" a few days after his accusations. "I don't remember saying that about the secretary of the Treasury," said Hollings. Six days earlier, he had told a press conference that O'Neill "was on the Enron payroll." As for Daniels, Hollings justified his error on grounds that Enron CEO Kenneth Lay sat on the board of Eli Lilly, where Daniels was a senior executive. "I meant to say that Mitch Daniels was on the Ken Lay payroll rather than the Enron payroll," said the senator in a spectacular sample of Hollings-think. It has become an article of faith for Hollings and dozens of other Democrats that Enron hand-picked Pat Wood III as Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman (FERC) to replace Curtis Hebert Jr. As reported here earlier, President Bush had decided on fellow Texan Wood (his State Public Utilities chairman) once Wood was passed over as Federal Communications Commission chairman. Hebert refused to bend policy to Lay, who then declined to support him. Nevertheless, Hebert said, "I never had any reason to believe that the White House was influenced by Ken Lay." Rep. Henry Waxman, the senior House Democratic investigator, declared on CNN's "Crossfire" that Lay "had pretty much the say over their choices" for FERC. How did he know? "Well, it's been reported in the press," replied Waxman. When I asked Pelosi whether she had information beyond Waxman's newspaper reading, she was unresponsive. Democrats rely on media reports such as ABC-TV's last week that Lawrence Lindsey, Bush's national economic adviser, "was one of the most outspoken defenders" as a private citizen of overseas "tax havens" used by Enron while receiving $50,000 from Enron. That obscures the truth that former Federal Reserve Governor Lindsey was hired for advice, not to lobby. Bush's reversal of the Clinton administration attack on "harmful tax competition" was made by O'Neill and represented widespread conservative sentiment against Europe's high-tax cabal, not a special favor for Enron. The biggest stretch for Democrats who claim a Bush-Enron connection is their frequent claim that the company's influence earned it a $254 million tax windfall. In reality, this was a small piece of a $17 billion retroactive tax cut for big corporations that was adopted last October by the House Ways and Means Committee, despite criticism by the Bush administration -- and since has been abandoned. How far can guilt-by-association go?