- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 9, 2005

The legacy of Enron and other recent business scandals endures palpably inside Park Avenue boardrooms and Capitol Hill hideaways. The private sector faces rigorous new legal requirements like Sarbanes-Oxley, while corporate ethical norms also evolve in less formal ways. But endless stories about “business behaving badly” bruised more than corporate titans. Using private-sector best practices as a government-reform device is another casualty. The pendulum has swung so far in the post-Enron world that it’s now almost politically incorrect to promise public gains from private-sector methods.

But conservatives should resist allowing recent corporate scandals to detract from using proven business tactics like harnessing market forces and competition as an engine to improve government performance. Business ethics — like personal behavior — always fall short of perfection. But capturing private-sector efficiency can and should save taxpayer money — as corporate CEO Peter Grace demonstrated 20 years ago when he spearheaded a government-reform effort for President Reagan.

Corporate America took a big hit due to the behavior of individuals at companies such as Adelphia, Tyco, MCI-WorldCom, and, of course, Enron. The Pew Research Center issued a report in late October titled, “Public Sours on Government and Business,” noting, “favorable opinions of business corporations are at their lowest point in two decades.” Democrats weave stories of wrongdoing together with alacrity, creating a corruption narrative. Just mentioning the name “Halliburton” now in some circles conjures up a new “axis of evil” — Vice President Cheney, the war in Iraq and no-bid contracts — despite most Americans’ inability to identify wrongdoing.

Looking at government versus private-sector response to Hurricane Katrina, it’s clear the public sector could learn a lot from business in terms of pace, focus, efficiency and results. Wal-Mart was a case in point. The Washington Post wrote recently, “while state and federal officials have come under harsh criticism for their handling of the storm’s aftermath, Wal-Mart is being held up as a model for logistical efficiency and nimble disaster planning.” So the “corporation as pariah” metaphor may be losing its potency. New York Times columnist John Tierney wrote recently that Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter “was so impressed with the rapid response of Wal-Mart and other companies that he promised to introduce a bill to abolish FEMA and contract its job out to the private sector.”

In the wake of Katrina, public/private partnerships have new legitimacy and relying on corporate secrets of success is less radioactive. Republicans should consider such a project as part of their 2006 agenda. Taking a page from a previous conservative U.S. president, why not appoint a task force of respected business leaders to identify waste, fraud and abuse, and develop recommendations about how successful information-age business principles could reform government. There is a successful precedent Republicans could follow.

Nearly 22 years ago, in January 1984, President Ronald Reagan received a report he had commissioned called the President’s Private Sector Survey — also known as The Grace Commission. Utilizing the expertise of 161 top executives and over 2,000 volunteers, the groundbreaking report recommended 2,478 specific ideas to save taxpayer money.

Republicans should propose their own Grace Commission for 2006, advocating use of today’s technology and other market-based principles to improve the performance of government and save money. And they should consider tapping another well-respected business leader, like Jack Welch, former General Electric CEO, to lead it.

Most people don’t remember the Grace Commission, but it represented a rallying cry for conservatives during the 1980s. It helped undergird Ronald Reagan’s lower-tax philosophy by seeking out savings opportunity, “like tireless bloodhounds, as you requested,” Mr. Grace wrote to Mr. Reagan in transmitting his report. Given public concern about federal spending, sending the canines out to reduce Washington’s largesse would still earn barks of approval from American voters.

It’s been 20 years since the government called upon the W.R. Grace CEO for advice about how to do more with less. True, corporate America has absorbed some hard knocks in the past several years, and Democrats will try to ridicule such a move. But they are wrong. There’s a big difference between shilling for corporations and using private-sector best practices to save taxpayer dollars. It’s time to stop throwing out business with the Enron bathwater. Create the Welch Commission.

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