Enron-Driven Pension Reform Plans Show Gulf in Two Parties' Philosophies

It's pretty much agreed all around that the collapse of energy-trading company Enron is a major corporate tragedy, but on Capitol Hill, that's where the harmony ends.

When the question of what to do about pensions and 401(k) plans after the scandal arises, the divide between Democrats and Republicans yawns wider than ever.

The politically connected energy giant's fall has become a lesson in shifty business practices, with both parties running as far from the scandal as they can while pointing fingers at company officials they hold accountable.

In what's being called a glaring example of fat cats sticking it to the little guy, some 20,000 lower-level employees with their retirement savings in company stock were barred from trading their shares as the company's value plummeted. Senior corporate executives, however, cashed in millions of dollars of their own stock even as they swore up and down to their workers that the company was flying high.

Both major parties have their own, fundamentally different ideas on how to prevent such a disaster in the future — the core difference being that Republicans believe workers can and should know what to do with their own money while Democrats believe government should restrict what they can and should do with that money in order to protect people.

President Bush has proposed changing the rules on how companies handle their pension plans, changes that prevent corporate bigwigs from selling stock when company peons can't.

"If it's OK for the sailor, it ought to be OK for the captain," Bush told GOP officials as he introduced his proposal.

The administration plan would also let workers diversify their 401(k) accounts and sell company stock after three years in the program. Employers would have to let their employees know in detail how the company is doing four times a year, and workers would have to receive 30 days notice before a "blackout period" prevents them from selling stock because of administrative changes.

"The plan will strengthen the workers' ability to manage their own retirement funds by giving them more freedom to diversify, better access to professional investment advice and quarterly information about the investment," he said.

But the president's plan would let workers invest as much as they want in their employer's stock.

The idea, according to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, is that protecting workers cannot come at the expense of the workers' liberty to make their own choices – for good or ill.

"We must strengthen the confidence of the American workforce that their retirement savings are secure," she said at a hearing of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "We must accomplish this without unnecessarily limiting employers' willingness to establish and maintain plans or employees' freedom to direct their own savings."

The Democrats have different ideas. They want strict restrictions on how much employees can put into their own company's stock, stiff penalties for corporate securities wrongdoing and more latitude for workers to diversify 401(k) plans.

"How could it ever be a good thing to make it easier for people to make bad choices?" asked Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute, who favors the Democrat plan. "Everybody agrees that it's unfounded and imprudent to concentrate investment in a single stock, let alone your employer's stock. So to give people that option and say we're enhancing your freedom to commit financial suicide isn't a good thing."

But Olivia Mitchell, a professor of insurance and risk management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said that it's becoming clear that pension reform isn't as simple as telling employees whether or not they can invest in their own companies.

"This is a lot more complex than anybody expected," she said. "The more you look at it, we've had a long history of encouraging company purchases. There have been so many people who support the notion that the simple solution of putting a clean limit on company stock is not so viable."

Among those who could suffer most by such rules, she said, would be small business that try to bolster company pride by offering their employees shares, and owners who want to retire and pass on control of the company to the next generation.

"A simple fix is probably going to be too simple and may be going to go against longheld views," she said. "I think both sides are beginning to realize this."