'Tis the Season For Corporate Welfare

Who says that our current government in Washington, D.C. is filled with hard-hearted grinches? When it comes to handouts for corporate sponsors, it is the politicians' season of giving.

Senator John McCain has described the U.S. political process as "a system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion." The months immediately following an election provide a chance to see this system at its most cynical and transparent. Knowing that the national political culture suffers from a prolonged case of attention deficit disorder, politicians can make a safe bet that whatever disgraceful favors they do for special interests now will be long-forgotten by the general public before the next elections roll around.

For well-heeled donors, now is the time for the big payback. Between further tax cuts for the rich and legislation crafted by corporate lobbyists, they will have plenty to look forward to in coming months. In fact, returns on their political "investments" have already begun to come in. Members of Congress and President Bush made good use of the lame duck session to reward major contributors from the business community, in particular big energy and pharmaceutical companies.

Energy companies and other industrial polluters received one of the biggest gifts under the Christmas tree -- sent directly from the Bush administration. During the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, when few reporters were paying attention, the EPA announced the largest rollback of the Clean Air Act in its 22 year history. New EPA rules allow factory owners higher emissions of carbon monoxide and other smog-causing pollutants, and weaken previous clean-up requirements.

The fact that El Paso Energy Corporation and Union Pacific rest high on the list of top soft money donors to the Republican party no doubt encouraged the EPA's pro-industry change of heart. More than just sending money, energy companies provided a lush talent pool for top administration positions. First and foremost, there's ex-Halliburton chief Dick Cheney. Fellow cabinet members Don Evans and Gayle Norton, plus National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, all have direct ties to energy industry brand names like British Petroleum, Chevron, and Tom Brown, Inc.

While the new EPA guidelines allow these corporations to reap millions in savings, under-represented citizens and the environment pay the price. Frank O'Donnell of the Clean Air Trust points to a survey indicating that 34 states plus the District of Columbia already have serious -- and in most cases worsening -- smog problems.

"It is deplorable that the Bush administration would weaken clean air protections and subject us to even bigger health problems," O'Donnell says. "Children with asthma, senior citizens and others with breathing problems are suffering the most."

Big drug companies were a second early beneficiary of post-election handouts. Their gift came stealthily wrapped as an amendment to the Homeland Security Act. This rider protects the makers of vaccine preservatives from lawsuits charging that their drugs cause autism in children. Given that the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, Inc. and Eli Lilly together contributed over $3.6 million in soft money to Republicans during the 2001-2002 election cycle, few expected that the pharmaceutical industry would receive a lump of coal in its stocking this year. But even many Senate Republicans were shocked by the callousness of the House-generated amendment.

That the Bush administration did not join in protest was hardly surprising, however, given that White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels formerly worked for Eli Lilly, the primary beneficiary of the legislation. Even more outrageous, Lilly CEO Sidney Taurel sits as a Bush appointee on the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

The drug amendment is one example of "tort reform" -- limitations on the amount of money that individuals who are injured by negligence or malpractice can collect from a company. Since insurance and tort lobby groups poured $5.7 million in soft money into GOP coffers in 2001 alone, more of these changes are almost certainly on their way. Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Sen. Trent Lott, says that "Tort reform is a priority for the Senate Republican leadership and will most likely be a focus of the 108th Congress."

Is there an end to corporate welfare in sight? No. The cost of competing in elections continues to skyrocket. George W. Bush alone spent over $185 million dollars on his last campaign. Recent limits on soft money contributions notwithstanding, candidates will continue to turn to networks of big donors to make up the colossal sums they need to win.

Shaming politicians as they make corporate payouts is one part of the solution to this bribe-and-bank political process. Surely, in the coming months, public scrutiny will be necessary to limit some of the most offensive giveaways. Of longer term significance is the fight for far-reaching campaign reforms. Measures that mandate public financing for political races -- like the "clean election" laws in Arizona, Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine -- serve to institutionalize popular outrage over abuses that otherwise fade quickly into distant memory.

The sad fact is that over the next two years, almost all of us will forget the most recent round of political favors for big business. But the corporate donors won't. Come Christmas 2004, the payback season will begin anew.

Mark Engler, a writer based in Brooklyn, has previously worked with the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in San José, Costa Rica, as well as the Public Intellectuals Program at Florida Atlantic University. This article was originally published on TomPaine.com.


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