- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

What do Enron, the New York Times and the U.S. Congress have in common? First, each had reason to think it was the very best. Second, each was afflicted by excessive arrogance and corrupted institutional practices and accountability. And third, as with Enron, each may prove incapable of repairing the damage absent outside intervention.

Enron sought to be not just the biggest energy company in the world, but the biggest company period. When former Chairman Kenneth Lay presented that message in the many forays where he was invited to speak as a superhero of industry, rarely was he asked why it was important for Enron to be the “biggest.” In those few occasions he was queried about that goal, his stony silence suggested that the resident village idiot had dared address him.

Enron, of course, imploded. Its corporate culture was destroyed by arrogance and the corruption of massively rewarding those who set no limits on legality and truth in what they achieved for the company. As long as the deals flowed, Enron believed it was bulletproof. The insurance policy was Enron stock, whose price soared skyward like Icarus. Then came the inevitable accounting. Mr. Lay and the most senior Enron management were powerless to correct the damage done by this corruption. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of devastated employees and investors, the damage to trust and confidence in the corporate community still mounts.

For more than 150 years, the New York Times promised its readers “all the news that’s fit to print.” Within the media, the Times was the icon and standard. Only occasionally did it miss a really big story, such as Watergate. But in terms of prestige, Pulitzer prizes for journalism and other terms of value in the profession, the Times was without peer. Then came Jayson Blair. Mr. Blair was the young reporter who decided that all the news fit to print could be embellished by plagiarism and fabrication.

Despite ample warning, it was because of institutional arrogance and denial of the truth that Mr. Blair was advanced toward the top. Mr. Blair may be an isolated case, but his disease is contagious. If other Times reporters are infected, then the Times has an Enron- size problem on its hands.

Congress, by its own reckoning, is the world’s greatest deliberative body. Virtually all of its members possess integrity and ability, and are anxious to serve country and constituents to the best of their ability. But as an institution, Congress is arrogant and corrupted by many of its processes and practices that prevent good governance. This is not new. Seventy years ago, the great humorist Will Rogers observed about Congress that every law it passed seemed to be a joke. And worse, every time it tried to make a joke, the joke turned out to be a law.

For the Times, the jury is still out. Had Mr. Blair been reporting on business or economics, his fabrications could have brought lawsuits of ruinous proportion. Perhaps outraged shareholders will dump their holdings in protest, sufficiently driving the Times’ share price down from the current level of about $43 to get management’s attention. And if not, with the wave of corporate sins so much on the public’s mind, the likelihood of major housecleaning prompted from without is high, especially if more Mr. Blairs turn up.

What about Congress? Constituents invariably admire their representatives while disdaining the body at large. The fact is that incumbents are overwhelmingly re-elected. So, where is the incentive to amend a body whose organization is long obsolete, to provide an administrative enema to flush away archaic rules and procedures and to get Congress to face up to its constitutional responsibilities of governing, and less on the chronic and demeaning need to raise vast sums of money for campaigns, elections and conducting modern politics?

The Bush administration has reacted, probably sensibly, with nearly total disregard for Congress, dismissing or downplaying it whenever it can. And the White House has been successful. Yet, is that any way for a great country to be governed?

Enron imploded. The Times has a ticking time bomb. As for Congress, Americans must confront their elected representatives and demand better. To paraphrase President John Kennedy, members should be challenged not on what they can do for their constituents, but on what Congress can do for the nation.

At a time when the general welfare of the United States is under simultaneous attack by foreign extremists willing to die in the process and economic devils that seem resistant to death, the nation needs competent government. If that does not follow, while Congress will never implode, the welfare of the nation may. Look at Enron and wait to see what happens at the Times if you are unconvinced.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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