The famous Texas two-step is getting a heavy workout in Washington. You glance away for just a moment and–oops–we’re no longer for regime change in Iraq.
We’ve spent the last two months having it pounded into our brains daily that we must have regime change in Iraq, nothing else will do. But now–not so. Well, you say, people are allowed to change their minds, even presidents. But that’s where we come to the awkward part, because the administration is insisting it hasn’t changed its mind at all, it never demanded regime change and it’s all our fault for being so stupid as to have misunderstood them. This is the White Queen stage, she who could believe six impossible things before breakfast.
You won’t find me griping about our new policy–except of course, since we’re so dumb we can’t remember what the old policy was. This is not new at all. I like the not-new policy. The not-new policy is that if we can get rid of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction through strict U.N. inspections, we don’t have to have a war. Actually, that was my old policy, so I’m glad to see it’s become Bush’s not-new policy, and I’d just like to apologize to everyone for thinking that Bush ever wanted regime change in the first place.
Now that you are in practice on the White Queen program, join us for the latest fiasco in corporate reform. In those dear, dead days of last summer, Bush appeared on Wall Street standing before a blue and white backdrop on which “Corporate Responsibility” and “A New Ethic” were printed over and over–in case we should miss the point of his speech. President W. was there in his incarnation as the Scourge of Corporate Misbehavior to read the riot act to corporate executives who do terrible things–like get insider loans, dump their stock when the company is tanking and do phony transactions to take heavy losses off the books.
For those of us who had followed Bush’s career at Harken Energy–Enron writ small–this was merely an average White Queen morning. Hey, times change, the guy was the executive of an energy company bleeding money way back when, why shouldn’t he get out while the getting was good? Now we have “a new ethic.”
In that same speech, to show his zeal for going after corporate evil-doers, Bush asked for a nice round $100 million in additional funding for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Except the New Ethic didn’t last very long. Didn’t even survive the election, and I think Bush deserves credit on this point. Any posturing politician could have stuck with corporate reform until after the election was over; it takes cojones to drop the whole thing two weeks before the election. That, or someone who thinks the American people are deeply stupid.
So intense did the pressure for corporate reform grow last summer that the Congress actually passed the Sarbanes bill, including a new board to oversee the accounting industry and $776 million for the SEC, a 77 percent increase. Bush signed the bill amidst great fanfare and later took credit for solving the corporate corruption problems (even though he had opposed the bill almost until the moment he signed it). And everyone agreed, “What a good first step.”
Oops. Bush and his man Harvey Pitt at the SEC have already gutted the new accounting oversight board, and last week he urged Congress to appropriate 27 percent less, $568 million, than the agreed-upon increase for the SEC.
That’s an increase of about 30 percent over last year’s budget of $438 million, and the SEC is one of the most notoriously underfunded agencies in Washington. Lawyers and accountants who work there make about half what lawyers and accountants do in other departments of government. New technology and enforcement efforts will have to be shelved. The SEC’s workload has increased exponentially while its staff has shrunk. Given the corporate scandals, do we really want to call off the already emaciated watchdogs at the SEC?
In order to understand this move, you have to think like a Bushie. Corporate corruption? Hey, that was last summer’s scandal–that is so 10 minutes ago. As for those who think there is much more clean-up yet to be done, what are you, one of the 45 million Americans in a traditional pension plan? Why should you worry just because The New York Times reports America’s 50 largest companies counted $54.4 billion of pension fund gains as profits last year, when in fact they lost $35.8 billion.
Just another cute accounting trick; doesn’t hurt anybody. Just ask the ex-Enron and ex-Worldcom employees. And why would major corporations pad their reported earnings in this fashion? Could it be because that’s the bottom line that determines the bonuses for top executives?
Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her book with Louis Dubose, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, is out in paperback.