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Corporate America, Beware: GOP Won’t End Scrutiny

The conventional wisdom since the election has been that, with Republicans now in charge of Congress, the days of adversarial Congressional investigations are over. It’s true that the White House has little to fear from a Republican-led Congress. But while the nation’s chief executive can probably relax, those in corporate boardrooms should not.

During my tenure as the staff director and chief counsel of a Senate investigative subcommittee, we pursued a few errant CEOs. In the past two years, however, Congressional investigations of alleged corporate wrongdoing have reached a fever pitch, and many of my former colleagues on Capitol Hill are pressing ahead with investigations on several fronts. Don’t be surprised if Congressional committees led by GOP chairmen continue to haul senior executives before the cameras at public hearings to hurl incendiary charges at them in front of a rapacious media.

It might seem odd that GOP committee chairmen would continue to bite the hand of the business community that fed the party’s stunning electoral success. But Democrats haven’t had a monopoly on corporation-bashing. Over the past two years, the most notable Congressional investigations of American business have been led by Republican committee chairmen, particularly in the House. When Republicans last controlled both houses of Congress, three different Congressional committees investigated the Firestone tire recall.

Even after the leadership of the Senate committees changed hands in 2001, it was House Republicans, not Democrats, who continued to dominate the investigations of alleged corporate misconduct. Reps. Billy Tauzin (La.) and James Greenwood (Pa.) of the Energy and Commerce Committee aggressively examined Enron, Arthur Andersen, Global Crossing and Martha Stewart.

Reps. Mike Oxley (Ohio) and Richard Baker (La.) of the Financial Services Committee also got into the act, pursuing the investment banking industry and holding widely publicized hearings on WorldCom. Senate Democrats took their shots as well, but the Republican House clearly led the Congressional pursuit of corporate America. There are two powerful reasons to believe that corporate executives will continue to be tempting targets for Congressional attacks.

First, bashing high-flying executives provides the GOP with needed inoculation against Democratic charges that Republicans are beholden to corporate interests. The recent elections confirmed what most suspected: Republicans effectively neutralized Democratic charges that they are shills for big business.

Second, the enormous “face time” garnered over the past year by Republican committee chairmen has not gone unnoticed by other GOP Members — particularly the new committee chairmen in waiting. From February to August, these GOP chairmen were essentially guest hosts of a few cable news programs. As a result, look for new Republican chairmen to follow suit by grabbing the microphone at public hearings that call business leaders on the carpet for one thing or another.

There will, of course, be a new class of committee chairmen likely to select fresh targets to replace Enron, WorldCom and Global Crossing. Most notably, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) will replace Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) as chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will return as chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that he led until 2001.

Also, the GOP-led investigations are not likely to produce sweeping legislative reforms such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Many of the same GOP committee chairmen who were leading the investigative charge against corporate America were nonetheless hesitant to endorse the more far-reaching proposals pushed by Democrats.

Corporate America will surely find a GOP-controlled Congress more accommodating of its legislative and regulatory priorities. But many business leaders may be shocked by the continued scrutiny. So, to all those senior executives out there who popped the cork off a bottle of good champagne to toast the GOP’s electoral success, I hope you took a good swig: You may need it.

K. Lee Blalack II is a partner of O’Melveny & Myers LLP in Washington.

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