A Derelict Watchdog

When Americans elect a new Congress in November, they might be tempted to reward incumbents for passing a corporate-reform law this week.

On its merits, the law will correct many of the accounting tricks and conflicts of interest widely practiced by business during the 1990s, an inventive age when inflated numbers and cozy ties could hide behind sky's-the-limit earnings.

But another correction is in order.

When the sky fell and exposed all the Enrons, members of Congress were shocked, just shocked that the laws were inadequate to prevent new advances in shady business practices.

It took a couple of trillion dollars in lost stock value to wake them up to their own dereliction of duty in not keeping the nation's market-guiding laws up to date.

Voters expect their representatives to protect them from corporate dishonesty, but instead they now find Congress has been beholden to the accounting industry and other powerful business groups that prefer the status quo.

The wide scope of the business scandals forced Congress, over the past few weeks, to distance itself from corporate lobbyists. "I've heard a lot of my colleagues say in the past we would give accounting lobbyists the benefit of the doubt," said Rep. Robert Matsui (D) of California. "Now [lobbyists] need to prove their case."

Being pro-business does not mean being pro-dishonesty. Congress must stay ahead of the business curveballs thrown at the investing public. It should have set up an accounting- oversight board long ago.

Voters can decide which of the political derelicts on Capitol Hill should not be rewarded at the ballot box, just as the executives who fudge earnings will be rewarded with jail time.

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