Government by investigation

If history is any guide, the current congressional investigations of the Enron disaster could yield sweeping reforms in corporate transparency and accounting ethics. In the past, Congress has tended to reflect public outrage.

The first congressional investigation occurred in 1792 when a House select committee probed the Indian massacre of troops that had been sent into the Ohio territory. The lawmakers ended up blaming the War Department. Since then, although not explicitly provided for in the Constitution, government by investigation has become a feature of American life.

In the Senate, there have been Truman hearings on arms profiteering, Kefauver hearings on organized crime and, of course, McCarthy hearings on communist influence.

The most productive have been hearings on financial abuses.

The Credit Mobilier scandal during the Grant administration in 1869 involved corruption in the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The Teapot Dome scandal during the Harding administration involved the private sale of naval oil reserves.

Some of our regulatory agencies were products of congressional investigations. An investigation of the meat-packing industry, sparked by the shocking revelations in Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle," led to the establishment of a meat inspection system in 1906, and later, the Food and Drug Administration.

An investigation of Wall Street financial manipulation led, in 1934, to the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission. And, if you will pardon an octogenarian's aside, those hearings yielded the historic photo of banker J.P. Morgan with a midget in his lap. The dwarf had been slipped there by a circus agent as a stunt.

Whether the multicom- mittee approach to the Enron scandal can accomplish what well-targeted, single commitees have done in the past remains to be seen. As Sen. Sam Ervin, who headed the 1973 Watergate Committee, said, the congressional investigation "can be an instrument of freedom" or it can be "freedom's scourge." The test, he said, is whether it produces vital reforms or provides a "platform for demagogues."

The Ervin hearings contributed not only to the downfall of President Nixon, but the 1976 campaign-reform legislation that is now being updated.

• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.

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