Looking to Congress to clean business's house

It is not like the old days, when Americans looked to an activist president to wield power against business abuses and lead the country out of a financial morass.

Vividly remembered in history are Teddy Roosevelt, the trust-busting scourge of monopolies that were bleeding the consumer, and Franklin Roosevelt, who closed the collapsing banks in 1933 and created the Securities and Exchange Commission to ride herd over corporate wrongdoing.

Humorist Will Rogers called the SEC "a cop on the corner of Wall Street." In the current crisis of corporate malfeasance, with Time magazine reporting 72 percent of Americans seeing a pattern of deception, President Bush has failed so far to make himself the white knight who will slay the dragon of business wrongdoing.

Bush's much-heralded speech on Wall Street calling for a new ethic of responsibility and stiffer prison sentences for fraud left America unimpressed and the stock market sinking. His speech in Birmingham, Ala., offering reassurances about the economy did no better.

It is not easy for Bush to position himself as leading the charge against the culture he comes from. Questions continue over the sweetheart deals in which he was involved as a director of Harken energy in 1990.

New attention is being focused on how the president packed his administration with representatives of corporate America. He has a record four former CEOs in his Cabinet – Vice President Cheney of Halliburton Corp. (now under investigation), Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill of Alcoa, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld of General Instruments, and Commerce Secretary Don Evans of the Tom Brown Inc. energy company.

At the sub-Cabinet level, you will find Army Secretary Tom White of Enron, Air Force Secretary James Roche of Northrop Grumman, and Navy Secretary Gordon England of General Dynamics. (Remember President Eisenhower's denunciation of "the military-industrial complex"?)

Under the circumstances, it is Congress that has assumed the leadership role in tightening accounting regulation and making corporate executives more accountable. The Senate did not wait for a cue from the White House before passing a regulatory bill, 97 to 0, that a few weeks before would have been thought inconceivable.

As bipartisan blocs continue to work on the more pervasive abuses of executive self-enrichment, manipulation of stock options, and auditor-consultant conflicts of interest, we may be nearing the end of an era of deregulation that created the climate for some of the scandalous practices being uncovered.

Americans don't like government, except when things go wrong. They are ready for a crackdown, and they look to Congress rather than the business-friendly president to lead the way.

• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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