The Enron conservatives

Don't let them spin you: This is Teapot Dome, the sequel.

Published January 10, 2002 3:50PM (EST)

So now we know why the White House has spent the better part of a year fending off congressional efforts to find out who Vice President Cheney met with for input on his Energy Task Force. Turns out the V.P. and his staff had at least six meetings with representatives from Enron -- including one with chairman Kenneth Lay -- the last of which occurred just six days before the company revealed that it had vastly overstated its earnings, signaling the beginning of the end for the energy giant.

Since the Enron collapse, President Bush has been acting as if Ken Lay was just some good ol' boy who also happened to hail from Texas. This new information proves otherwise: that Lay and his company's sizable political contributions had bought what Rep. Henry Waxman has termed "extensive access" to the epicenter of American political power. It's Teapot Dome, the sequel.

During his run for the White House, Bush fought long and hard to convince us that he was a new breed of conservative -- a compassionate conservative. But recent events make clear that he is actually the standard bearer of a far more coldhearted breed. Call them the Enron conservatives.

Enron conservatives are people who use political money and connections as levers to free themselves of all accountability to laws, regulations and responsibility -- even to their own employees. Simply put, they are people who consistently, shamelessly and aggressively put their self-interest above the public interest. And when the lives of others are destroyed in the process, they just look the other way and hope that the law does, too.

It probably is too much to expect the Federal Trade Commission to hop on the Enron investigation bandwagon and look into whether Bush violated truth-in-labeling laws during his campaign, when his pledges of compassionate conservatism were stump speech favorites. But it should. Because we've heard precious little of them since Bush took the oath of office.

"While many of our citizens prosper," the freshly anointed president said in his inaugural address a year ago, "others doubt the promise, even the justice, of our own country." And those nagging doubts are only aggravated by the behavior of Enron executives who continue to prosper even as thousands watch their jobs -- and their life savings -- disappear.

Candidate Bush was so eager to paint himself as a compassionate conservative he even dared to impugn the moral supremacy of the free market -- blasphemy in the eyes of his party's doctrinaire right wing.

"The invisible hand works many miracles," said Bush during the summer of 1999, evoking Adam Smith's famous paean to market forces, "but it cannot touch the human heart." This simple truth lies at the core of the need for fair and rational government regulation of industry. All too often, after all, the human heart is filled not with goodness, but with greed, selfishness, and a desire for profit at any cost.

Too bad Bush left this noble idea behind on the campaign trail. Since taking office, the hallmark of his administration has been an unwavering belief in the free market's invisible hand.

In the last year, the president and his anti-regulatory appointees have (take a breath): abandoned a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide; repealed workplace ergonomic rules designed to improve worker safety; proposed reversing regulations protecting 60 million acres of national forest from logging and road building; and canceled a looming deadline for automakers to develop prototype high mileage cars. And that's just a partial list.

Not even the rapacious excesses of the Enron debacle have quelled the drive for deregulation -- or the ardor of Enron conservatives who champion the cause. Pat Wood, Ken Lay's handpicked choice to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, actually insists that the collapse of Enron "doesn't seem to be tied too much to deregulated energy markets." You know that something is rotten in Washington when the top energy industry regulator is so unabashedly anti-regulation.

Rep. Joe Barton, chair of the House subcommittee on energy and air quality, is another Enron conservative who sees the energy giant's collapse as an aberration, not a smoking gun. Indeed, he dismisses Enron's demise as "an in-house problem," and continues slaving away on a deregulation bill that would make Ken Lay proud.

Then there's Lawrence Lindsey, the president's top economic advisor and a former advisor to Enron, who went so far as to claim that the Enron disaster "is a tribute to American capitalism." And 9/11 was a tribute to Islamic ingenuity.

Not that long ago, Bush was vowing to battle domestic suffering with "armies of compassion." Instead, he and his cadre of Enron conservatives are adding to the carnage.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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