CORPORATE FOCUS: Washington Gridlock

Many Americans think that a do-nothing Congress mired in gridlock prevents it from conducting the people's business.Think again.A majoritarian faction of corporatist Republicans and Democrats have aggressively combined to usher through many of corporate America's top legislative priorities. And the Clinton White House, while threatening to brandish its veto power, has instead mostly sought minor modifications to the corporate dream bills.Consider the following gifts bestowed on the nation's largest businesses by the corporatist Congress:* Y2K Immunity. Although it is fair to say that the public and businesses have been widely aware of the eventual arrival of the year 2000 for decades, many software designers failed to design products that will adequately respond to this eventuality, and then failed to take timely corrective action. Congress chose to give them special protections nonetheless.The Y2K immunity legislation would make it much harder for consumers and small businesses that suffer from Y2K failures to be compensated, and would also make it difficult to file class action lawsuits for Y2K harms or injuries. Although President Clinton initially said he "strongly opposed" the legislation, he has now agreed to a compromise measure that closely resembles the earlier version he denounced.The National Association of Manufacturers and other business lobbies made Y2K immunity legislation a top priority -- as much for its precedential value as because of the legislation's inherent importance to big corporations. With the Y2K victory in hand, they will now look to chip away at other citizen protections in the civil justice system. Next up: a broad bill to undermine citizens' ability to file class action lawsuits.* Financial Consolidation. Under the banner of "financial modernization," H.R. 10 would permit banks, investment companies and securities firms to merge. Both houses have now passed H.R. 10; and the White House appears likely to cut a deal to permit a slightly watered-down version to become law.If enacted into law, H.R. 10 would likely generate a tidal wave of financial industry mergers. The financial lobby would tighten its political stranglehold on Washington. Giant conglomerates would lock in a too-big-to-fail status, ensuring a future marked by bailouts of mega-financial firms.The mega-companies will invade consumer privacy by trading insurance, bank and other personal data between affiliates, and then conducting intrusive direct marketing schemes accordingly. The right to violate consumer privacy is so essential to the financial goliaths that they threatened to oppose H.R. 10 if it was amended to include minimal privacy protections.* Modern Day Debtors' Prison. In a gift to the credit card industry, the House of Representatives has passed misnamed "bankruptcy reform" that would undermine one of the remaining fairness rules intended to benefit the down and out. The Senate is poised to pass the bill soon. Consumer advocates hold out hope for a White House veto.The bankruptcy legislation would make it much harder to file for bankruptcy; extend the period debtors were forced to stay in bankruptcy; and make it harder for debtors to prioritize payments for vital items such as a homes or food over credit card debt.* NAFTA for Africa. The African Growth and Opportunity Act, a gold mine for U.S. business, is scheduled for a quick vote in the House. If it passes the House, it will come up for consideration sometime thereafter in the Senate, where it will face entrenched opposition. Should it pass both chambers, the White House is eagerly awaiting a signing ceremony.The NAFTA for Africa bill would grant very modest trade benefits to African countries; but it would condition those benefits on African countries opening their borders to imports and investments from U.S. companies, privatizing government operations, protecting U.S. intellectual property interests and following the prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Illinois Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. has rightly said the bill is about Africa's "recolonization."Gridlock comes in the 106th Congress only when an outraged public forces issues of citizen concern onto the legislative agenda. Then the corporatists are usually able to block even modest positive measures in areas like a patients' bill of rights or campaign finance reform, but they are less able to ram through the corporate wish list.When the public enters a do-something mode, Congress reverts to a do-nothing posture -- generally about the best that can be expected from the current band of rogues.Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Common Courage Press, 1999,

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