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Enthusiasm Ebbs for Tough Reform in Wake of Enron


WASHINGTON, June 9 Six months after the collapse of Enron, a wave of enthusiasm for overhauling the nation's corporate and accounting laws has ebbed and the toughest proposals for change are all but dead.

A powerful group of lobbyists, playing on partisan disagreement in Congress, appears to have killed efforts to impose tight new controls on corporate conduct. And while some Democrats hope to turn the inaction to their advantage in the fall elections, other lawmakers say that barring more business meltdowns that deepen the stock market's two-year slump voters are unlikely to care enough to influence their ballots.

Bills imposing more stringent accounting standards, changing the tax and accounting treatment of employee stock options and setting tougher conflict-of-interest rules for stock analysts and accounting firms have all fallen victim to political gridlock.

Corporate America and the stock markets have not waited for Washington. Instead, they have undertaken a host of changes in response to the problems highlighted by Enron and reinforced by corporate and accounting failures in the telecommunications, cable and energy industries. Investors have fled companies whose accounting or governance practices fail to measure up to post-Enron standards. Some Republicans say all this is evidence that the system is working without heavy-handed interference by lawmakers.

Congress did much to focus attention on flaws in the nation's corporate and accounting practices with a series of investigative hearings earlier this year, the most dramatic of them conducted by committees in the Republican-led House. Even so, with the debate over Enron at full boil, the House adopted a measure in April that rejected the toughest proposed changes.

Senate Democrats now predict that they will have the votes to get a broad measure of their own out of the Banking Committee later this month on a party-line vote, but only by tempering it to win the support of moderates. Senator Tom Daschle, the majority leader, is said by lawmakers and his aides to be committed to trying to move a bill to the Senate floor before the August recess, in hopes of using the Republicans' opposition to the measure against them in fall campaigns.

Even if that bill survives a filibuster threatened by Senate Republicans, lawmakers and lobbyists say that there is little chance of reconciling the differences between the House and the Senate this year.

All of Washington has not been paralyzed. Federal regulators spurred in part by state prosecutors have become more aggressive on the enforcement front. In Congress, meanwhile, legislation to modify pension laws a response to the enormous losses in the retirement funds of employees at Enron and other troubled companies might have a better chance of passage.

Still, even lawmakers who favor a tough response to the seeming explosion in business misconduct detect little fervor among voters for a Washington crackdown. Absent a spate of further disclosures, they say, the issues may remain too remote to change many voters' minds.

"The politics will be determined by the circumstances," said Senator Jon S. Corzine, Democrat of New Jersey and a former top executive of Goldman, Sachs & Company. "If we continue to see an erosion of the stock market and more cases like Adelphia and Tyco, then it will be significant. If we see less, then it may have less of an impact, because these can become issues that are hard for people like my mom to understand."

Other lawmakers, particularly Republicans, say Enron's moment as a galvanizing issue has quickly passed.

"The feeding frenzy is pretty much over," said Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, the ranking Republican on the banking committee, who has worked closely with industry lobbyists to kill many of the Democrats' proposals. "People started looking at making all these radical changes and decided there was a real cost involved and that it would not solve the Enron problem."

Mr. Gramm said regulators and the marketplace are already correcting the excesses exemplified by Enron and its auditor, Arthur Andersen, relieving Congress of the need to enact comprehensive legislation.

"A lot of progress has already been made," he said. "The president has put forward a strong program, the Securities and Exchange Commission is moving forward, and the exchanges are changing their rules. No one who sits on an audit committee will be the same after Enron." Mr. Gramm's wife, Wendy, a onetime government regulator who served on Enron's audit committee, resigned from the company's board last week.

Representative Billy Tauzin, the Louisiana Republican who held hearings on Enron's collapse, agreed with Mr. Gramm's appraisal, but he said it was still vital for Congress to act, even though the prospects for legislation are not strong.

"It's all very iffy," he said. "There is a huge rift between where the Senate believes these issues ought to go and what the House has already passed. I don't know if it gets worked out in time."

Both Democrats and Republicans have already begun to consider strategies to make the best political use of the issue in the November elections. The Republicans are relying heavily on the rule-making and enforcement actions of the S.E.C.

On the Democratic side, one idea under discussion by advisers to Senator Daschle is to bundle disparate proposals into one package, making it more efficient to both confront recalcitrant Republicans in the House and make a political issue in the fall of the legislation's defeat.

In any event, politicians and lobbyists say that any change in the accounting treatment of stock options is dead for the year largely because of the perception that Silicon Valley, where such options are as ubiquitous as the Internet itself, is up for grabs in the 2002 and 2004 elections.

Proposals have been made to force companies to account for options as a compensation cost now they are not charged against corporate earnings and to limit the ability of companies to take tax deductions for issuing options. But technology companies, financial firms and corporate trade groups with the backing of President Bush have lobbied lawmakers around the country to maintain the current system.

For now, lawmakers say, they have trumped the arguments of such people as Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, and the multibillionaire investor Warren E. Buffett that the current treatment of options contributed to corporate overreaching in the 1990's.

The Bush administration has not been a visible force in the legislative battles, relying instead on likeminded allies notably Senator Gramm to bottle up the most ambitious legislation. He has met repeatedly with corporate lobbyists and urged them to press sympathetic Democrats or those facing tight races, like Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Zell Miller of Georgia, to block legislation from reaching the Senate floor.

Democrats say that effort appears to have failed and that Senator Paul S. Sarbanes, Democrat of Maryland, appears to have the support to get a bill approved by the banking committee. It would sharply curtail the consulting work performed by accounting firms, create a relatively independent oversight board for the accounting profession, require large corporations to rotate their auditors every five years, and impose tighter conflict of interest restrictions on stock analysts than the measure that was passed by the House.

Mr. Gramm has been working closely with the administration on an alternative measure that does not tighten conflict of interest regulations for analysts or auditing firms. His wife's Enron ties seem to have produced no political pressure on Mr. Gramm who has announced his intention to retire from the Senate after this year to shy from the debate.

The post-Enron proposals prompted scores of industry associations and hundreds of corporations to retain lobbyists and use their own employees to try to weaken or kill the measures. They include the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, which is dominated by the largest firms. Hundreds of companies, including Oracle and Intel, have fought against changing the treatment of stock options. And many of the largest Wall Street firms have lobbied against changes in the laws governing stock analysts.

The drift in Congress largely reflects the power of the accounting profession. Accounting firms ranked as three of President Bush's top eight campaign donors in 2000, and over all, the industry made $14.7 million in campaign donations to both Democrats and Republicans during the last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The profession has influential members in many congressional districts and has been known to use lawmakers' own accountants to lobby them.

Pension legislation may stand a better chance in Congress, although its prospects remain cloudy.

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus of Montana, is crafting an alternative to a bill by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, that drew strong opposition from business lobbyists and Republicans.

On some points, Mr. Baucus's bill is likely to contain provisions similar to those in the House bill, like permitting workers to sell company stock awarded as a 401(k) match three years after they receive it. Senate aides say the bill may also place limits on certain forms of executive compensation. Mr. Daschle is warming to the provisions that are expected to form the Baucus proposal, Senate aides say.

But they say the Baucus plan is unlikely to include the Kennedy proposal's provision prohibiting most companies from both offering their stock as a 401(k) investment option and using it to match employee contributions. This was designed to keep employees from putting too much retirement money in their own stock, as happened at Enron.

One major issue that remains unresolved is how to give employees better access to investment advice. Investment management companies have been lobbying to permit firms that administer retirement plans to offer advice to participants. Among other things, they would be permitted to recommend investments for which they could receive a fee.

Senate aides say the Baucus proposal may instead contain a provision encouraging employers to hire independent firms to provide advice.

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