Rep. Billy Tauzin

The Potemkin populism of the Republicans’ chief Enron investigator.

This was Mardi Gras week, so it’s fitting that Washington, D.C., pause to appreciate Rep. Billy Tauzin. The Louisiana Republican is a kind of human Mardi Gras, a politician who is having way too much fun making a ruckus.

For the past couple of months, it has been Fat Tuesday (and Wednesday, and every day) for Tauzin. As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the “Swamp Fox” has gleefully spearheaded the GOP’s Enron investigation. Democrats accuse Tauzin, not unreasonably, of ignoring the political aspects of Enron, but no one can dispute that he has provided more drama than the rest of the congressional investigations combined. Tauzin’s investigators turned up Sherron Watkins’ whistle-blowing letter and Jordan Mintz’s damning documents. Watkins testified before Energy and Commerce yesterday, and, in the investigation’s biggest coup, the committee got former CEO Jeffrey Skilling to appear last week. And Tauzin’s committee staged last week’s theatrical, incriminating, and utterly pointless parade of Fifth Amendment takers. The press-hound Tauzin has also been ubiquitous on television, his salty Cajun quippery in great demand. (Last weekend, Tauzin told CBS that Skilling tried to “flamboozle” the committee—a not-quite-word that was by far the most vivid description of Skilling’s duck-and-blame testimony.)

Enron is merely the latest case of Tauzin’s consumer grandstanding. Since he took charge of the committee last winter, Tauzin has masterminded a series of popular investigations. He led the congressional inquiry into the Ford-Firestone debacle, pounded the TV networks over their use of exit polls in the 2000 presidential election, tut-tutted everyone about the California power crisis; and slapped around the American Red Cross for not giving enough of its post-9/11 donations to victims.

Tauzin looks like the second coming of his famous Democratic predecessor, Rep. John Dingell, who chaired the committee for more than a decade until the Democrats lost the House in 1995. Energy and Commerce has vast jurisdiction—more than half of House bills start there—but Dingell used the committee to punish as well as legislate. Dingell was Washington’s Grand Inquisitor, gleefully torturing feckless bureaucrats and corporate shysters. Tauzin, who jumped to the GOP in 1995 after 14 years as a Democratic congressman, was a Dingell protégé, and he delights in the same kind of histrionics.

Yet more than Dingell, Tauzin is a perverse kind of consumer advocate—one for whom the theater is much more important than the substance. Tauzin, a former amateur actor, calls his Enron hearings “the show,” and that is clearly how he thinks of them. He aims at little more than creating drama and embarrassing the parties he summons before him. As BusinessWeek pointed out recently, Tauzin’s consumer investigations have produced almost nothing in the way of legislation or substantive change—a few extra dollars for highway safety, no alteration in TV election coverage, no intervention in the California energy crisis. The embarrassed Red Cross did agree to give more cash to 9/11 victims. You can already predict what Enron- or Andersen-related legislation will emerge from Tauzin’s committee: not much.

Why? Tauzin is a small-government conservative: He doesn’t think government should be interfering with these businesses, doesn’t want more federal bureaucracies—he thinks the ones we have are incompetent enough—doesn’t believe government should interfere in broadcast news operations. Tauzin wants to outrage, but he philosophically opposes doing anything about it.

Tauzin represents a new kind of populism—one that uses grandstanding for economically conservative ends. His home state of Louisiana, of course, is the cradle of American populism. Huey and Earl Long taxed the bejesus out of corporations to pay for schoolbooks, roads, and the like, and Edwin Edwards more or less carried on the Longs’ policies during his governorships in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But the Republican surge through the South, Edwards’ conviction on corruption charges, and the decline of the Louisiana economy killed what little remained of the state’s anti-corporate populism, says Tulane history professor Larry Powell.

Tauzin grew up in the Louisiana populist tradition. A Democrat by birth, a Cajun, the son of an electrician, Tauzin considered Earl Long his political role model and, back when he was getting started in the Louisiana legislature, counted Edwards as a mentor. But all that Tauzin keeps from that tradition is aesthetic. He has all the down-hominess that you’d expect from a Louisiana populist. He hunts frogs and alligators, loves zydeco, cooks gumbo, throws great parties, tells hilarious raunchy stories. (He has professed to be writing a novel about a one-legged stripper.) And he knows how to work a crowd: “There is a strong strain of populism in Billy—the ability to appeal to a broad range of people, to reach out and ring someone’s bell,” says former Rep. Bob Livingston, another Louisiana Republican. All this plays wonderfully in Louisiana, a state where politics is a form of entertainment and where voters require their elected officials to put on a great show. (Tauzin’s district remains majority Democratic, though culturally conservative. He routinely wins re-election with more than 90 percent of the vote.)

Tauzin’s high-profile consumerism distracts—perhaps intentionally—from his substantive agenda. He is the staunchest of economic conservatives. As a legislator—as opposed to investigator—Tauzin works diligently to advance American business. He is an enormous supporter of the Baby Bells and the broadcast industry, and an enormous recipient of their largesse. (William Safire once called him a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the broadcasters.) Tauzin has pushed deregulation and blocked the Securities and Exchange Commission’s effort in 2000 to more strictly regulate the accounting industry. Such regulations—notably limiting accounting firms from consulting with companies they audit—might have split the demonic marriage between Andersen and Enron. Tauzin, it won’t surprise anyone to learn, took more campaign contributions from Andersen than any other House member in the past dozen years.

(This phony have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too kind of populism is not new, notes Ferrel Guillory, director of University of North Carolina’s program in Southern Politics, Media, and Public Life. Except for Huey Long, who actually did punish corporate interests, most of the famed Southern populists “talked populist and appealed to voters in a populist fashion, but did the bidding of the major powers in their state.”)

Tauzin is not ashamed of his corporate alliances. He doesn’t hide them at all. He is unabashed in his support for business and in his skepticism about government. But when the moment for an easy hit comes, Tauzin seizes it. Consumerism is populism that requires no bravery. Tauzin likes to pretend he is taking on powerful interests, but by the time a Ford or Enron gets to the Energy and Commerce Committee, it has been eviscerated by the media and Wall Street already. So, Tauzin loses nothing by being first in line with the baseball bat: He wins credit as a champion of the little guy, which still counts for something in bayou politics. It would be a lot braver—and arguably more consistent with his deregulating, free-marketing principles—for Tauzin to defend Enron and Andersen. But that would not be fun, would not be showy, would not be popular, would not be Tauzin.