Now on CSPAN, the Enron Show

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Joseph Lieberman relaxes before being interviewed on "Face the Nation"

With politicians of all persuasions anxious to prove that they weren't in the pocket of the boys from Houston and are really working hard to get to the bottom of the Enron mess, hearings on Capital Hill began today. Joe Lieberman, positioning himself for 2004 from the big chair at the Governmental Affairs Committee, is running the Democratic show in the Senate. He'll be trying to stay centrist with fellow Democrat Carl Levin on his left and Fred Thompson on his right — and $11,500 from Arthur Andersen and $2,000 from Enron since 1989 in his pocket. In the House, the Republicans are eager to show they can be tough on Big Business too — James Greenwood, chairman of the Energy and Commerce oversight committee (a wholly owned subsidiary of Billy Tauzin's Energy and Commerce committee). Cheney nemesis Henry Waxman and John Dingell will be barking over GOP shoulders on behalf of the minority party.

As the calendar slips forward (and the legislative agenda settles into midterm election year vigorous-debate mode) Lieberman's committee will likely be where the stars come out. Governmental Affairs is the headliner, the Watergate committee, and the trio of Lieberman, Levin and Thompson — who has already made a declaration of sorts by urging the White House to "get the information out" about Enron contacts — should make for ripe daytime-cable viewing all spring. But while Lieberman must be pleased to know Ken Lay's schedule is now officially cleared, he doesn't have any big guests booked yet, and will kick of the 2002 hearings season relegated to obscurity on CSPAN3.

Where are all the stars?

So far, there's only one witness capable of putting butts in congressional seats — David Duncan, the fired lead Enron auditor who led the shredding at Arthur Andersen, did appear Thursday under subpoena in front of Greenwood's oversight gang. But Duncan, with all Andersen's fingers pointed squarely at him, took the Fifth and will hold out until he gets an immunity deal. So as the House got under way Thursday, fed live to the cable news networks, it was Andersen partner C.E. Andrews, and in-house lawyer Nancy Temple splitting hairs about when Justice called and the shredding stopped — and getting bumped for John Ashcroft talking about John Walker.

All of which means the hearings that kicked off Thursday — and the several others that will get under way in coming weeks — could take a while to heat up. Lieberman will let Levin, in charge of Governmental Affairs' investigations subcommittee, do the hard digging and knife-waving (he's already sent out 51 subpoenas to Enron and Andersen officials), but with every potential witness thoroughly "lawyered up" by now, there'll be plenty of Duncan-style immunity deals to be made, and all the legalistic haggling that comes with them, to be done first.

That's fine with the Democrats, who aren't in much hurry. Their job isn't to solve the case, just make a lot of noise about it, with the complete understanding that every time they say "Enron" and "Ken Lay," voters are likely to think "Big Business" and "George W. Bush." Carefully orchestrated, they can turn the myriad Enron investigations — not just into criminality but 401(k)s, tax laws, SEC accounting rules and anything else they can think of — into a prevailing wind on everything from energy policy to tax cuts and the economy. All they've got to do is turn a few stomachs with some of the most ready-made class-war villains to come around since Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. And the longer it goes on, the better.

The scandal is what's legal

To a point. Senate Democrats will have to make the most of their nominal moral advantage of having been out of power until very recently, because the longer the investigations into Enron, Andersen and supposed supervillain Lay go on, the wider the conclusions are likely to spread the guilt. For all the scolding of Enron's accounting, of its retirement plan, of its executive perks and funny habit of not paying much in the way of taxes the past five years, an early glance suggests that congressional investigators will find an awful lot of it to be perfectly legal.

The money that Enron, and particularly Andersen, has been doling out to Washington so generously in the last decade has touched both parties, and if it hasn't yielded much in the way of overt favors, it's netted plenty in the way of what Congress specializes in — inaction. It was Congress that spiked Arthur Levitt's crusade to separate accounting from consulting two years ago, Congress that keeps passing the impenetrable tax laws Ken Lay so deftly danced upon. Congress that leaves accounting and disclosure loopholes big enough for Lay to pay back a billion-dollar loan in stock without telling anybody and employ the kind of "creative and aggressive" practices that deluded so many for so long.

The Democrats know it — this could be the issue, carefully drizzled over the course of months, that could take the wartime sheen off George W. Bush in time for not only this November but maybe even two Novembers from now. For that cause, a parade of shredders, auditors and penniless employees will do nicely — but Republicans will be berating wrongdoers too. And if Lieberman and Levin and tax man Max Baucus follow that trail much farther — to why this happened, and who created the conditions that allowed it to happen — the midterms could be awfully hard on voters' faith in both parties.