Putting a Check on Corporate Power

If we get seduced into seeing the vicissitudes of electoral politics as the only means to the ends of equity and justice we will end up with a situation much like 1992, when many progressives concluded that there was little need to put pressure on the Clinton/Gore administration because they believed it would represent their views.

Many would later feel betrayed. The reason is that the ultimate enemy of democracy -- corporate power -- extends far beyond the two major parties and the three major branches of government. The permanent government inside the beltway -- the 30,000 lobbyists that work for corporations and the dozens of corporate legal foundations, public relations firms, think tanks, trade associations and front groups -- will doubtless continue pushing their agenda forward regardless of who sits in the White House.

Therefore, it makes little sense to hang our hopes on progressive candidates unless we can also build the kind of institutional strength and momentum that will be necessary to stiffen their spines.

Whatever administration comes into office will also be saddled with two major handicaps before they can turn to a proactive plan -- the war in Iraq and a downward-spiraling economy. Nevertheless, progressives can start pushing now for a few measures which have the potential to begin building momentum for other parts of the progressive agenda.

Public Funding of Elections

Virtually all single issue groups have been disappointed by the Congressional obsession with limited, partisan goals. For example, the evidence is clear that we have less than ten years before catastrophic climate change is virtually irreversible. The power of Big Oil and King Coal to minimize any attempts to displace their domination over energy policy is fueled in large part by millions of dollars of campaign contributions.

In conjunction with Oil Change International, the Center for Corporate Policy recently looked at the key climate and energy votes of the past four years and found that members who voted against clean energy and measures to address the impending climate catastrophe took four times as much money from Big Oil as those who voted for clean energy policies and the public interest.(link: http://priceofoil.org/oilmoney_keyfindings/)

There is little doubt that the same pattern exists with other legislation that has the potential to directly affect a powerful and entrenched industry.

Business has a right to argue its case, but it shouldn't be able to use its wealth to dominate the discourse. One of the ways we can restore some balance and seed the ground for a more expansive policymaking process is to liberate candidates from the pull of corporate money by pushing for public funding of elections.

There is much potential for progressives and conservatives to share some ground here. Regardless of where they stand along the political spectrum, members of Congress are tired of the fundraising rat race and spending their time dialing for dollars instead of debating the issues. Public funding of elections (aka "voter-owned elections") has succeeded at the state level in places like Maine and Arizona, where it has opened the political process to citizens not indentured to a political machine or group of corporate contributors. It could have as salutary or greater an effect on a Congress.

The good news is that after ten years of progress at the state level, bi-partisan legislation was introduced for the first time in 2007 in both the Senate and the House. Another Abramoff-like scandal could be all it takes to tip the balance and get such legislation passed. (See www.publiccampaign.org and www.JustSixDollars.org to learn more.)

Restore Regulatory Integrity

Over the past eight years hundreds of industry executives, lobbyists and other corporate shills have passed through the revolving door into government, where they have worked assiduously to gut key regulations.

This phenomenon didn't start with Bush but it certainly reached a new level in the past eight years. A famous example is Robert Rubin (who joined Citigroup after pushing Congress to pull the plug on the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act -- which prohibited commercial banks from marketing or underwriting securities, leading to the conflicts of interest that fed Enron and the current mortgage securities debacle).

The Bush administration has virtually eviscerated important environmental, food/product safety, and workplace safety standards and their enforcement. And the result is seen all over - from coal mine collapses to Vioxx to the discovery that our kids are chewing on lead-contaminated toys imported from China.

One hopes the new administration will appoint people who are more interested in regulating media ownership than owning a luxury car, who won't parlay their position at the Department of Education into contracts for their cronies, and who believe in real enforcement of the law.

Restoring regulatory integrity will require a range of specific measures but it is also important that each agency be truly independent of the companies regulated, which means tightening restrictions on the revolving door, encouraging the appointment of career public servants and providing strong protections for whistleblowers.

Given the fragility of our economy, the need to place stronger regulations over the financial sector is perhaps of greatest importance. As Robert Kuttner and Kevin Phillips have explored in two superb books recently published on the topic, both parties are guilty of failing to learn the lessons of the S&L Crisis and Enron. The blind faith in financial deregulation that both parties have maintained in the face of the facts speaks volumes about the depth of the Right's ideological hegemonic hold over regulatory policy.

In all of these areas much is to be done. The issues are not technical so much as political. Measures to tax speculative investment and trades, restore structural divisions between commercial and investment banking, and aggressively enforce existing antitrust laws are all relevant and doable.

Put Corporations in Their Place

During their 7 years in office, government contractors have become a new "shadow government," as Rep. Henry Waxman recently suggested, sucking up 40 percent of discretionary spending by 2006.

The consequences extend far beyond mere questions of accountability and waste, and go to the core of the corporate agenda. Under the guise of economic efficiency, the Bush administration announced in 2002 that it would turn about half of the federal government over to corporations by outsourcing well over 800,000 positions - a move designed to undermine federal workforce unions. The result is a shift from Democratic to Republican civil service, and a government riddled with corporate self-dealing.

Halliburton and Blackwater are just two chapters in this sordid saga. The list of functions outsourced to corporations include managing federal prisons, handling regulatory and scientific reviews (an arrangement rife with potential conflicts of interest), processing (or not) Freedom of Information requests, writing the president's daily intelligence brief, interrogating prisoners of war, etc.

There are bright lines that progressives can draw here, just as we succeeded in squashing the attempt to privatize Social Security, local and state coalitions are emerging to take on attempts to privatize highways, lotteries, essential services like water, education and so forth. It is outrageous that corporations like Diebold will be counting our votes in the upcoming election when they have so much at stake in the outcome.

In addition to engaging those fights where they exist, progressives can use them to develop a more sophisticated argument about those functions and services that are properly performed by government and other public institutions versus those that are best left to the market. By making the commons in all its forms - natural, cultural and even political - the focus of our struggle, we begin to demonstrate the places where corporations have no legitimate place at all.

Establish Equitable Treatment

The polarization of wealth in today's society has almost reached Depression-era levels. This Congress has failed to pass even the most modest measures such as proposal to close the loopholes that allow hedge fund managers to enjoy lower tax rates than their own secretaries.

Like single payer, universal healthcare, progressives should begin to push for a national living wage policy, or even a guaranteed income policy. With a few champions these will have to be pushed from the margins into the mainstream of debate, but if we succeed, it's likely that much of the nation's political discourse will be dragged with it back to the center.

It will take time. But the willingness of progressive members to raise the bar will would make it easier for the Congressional leadership to do more modest things to restore fairness in the workplace, such as reforming labor law so workers can more effectively organize themselves to improve employment conditions.

At the other end, executive pay has to be brought under control once and for all. Companies should not be allowed to award top executives ever-increasing compensation packages without binding majority approval from shareholders and no taxpayer money should go to companies that pay their top executives more than 50 times the lowest-paid employees.

Close Liability Loopholes

If businesses had full financial liability for their toxic waste, for their contributions to global warming, for the aiding and abetting of fraud and other harmful practices, there would be strong incentives to use safer materials and cleaner, more efficient technologies, and to stop cooking the books.

In addition to restoring the Superfund tax on toxic chemical producers and passing a moratorium on major sources of global warming gases (esp. coal-fired power plants), Congress should start standing up for those hurt by corporate practices who have lost their ability to pursue the perps in civil court as a result of twenty years of "tort reform."

In addition, new measures like those considered by Senator Arlen Specter during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007 could be introduced to attach criminal liability to life-threatening products and production processes where corporate officials fail to notify the affected parties and appropriate regulators. Such "corporate killing" statutes recently came into force in the UK and Canada. While such a law will not be easy to pass here in the U.S. in the face of opposition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (the most powerful lobbying machine of them all), the campaign to pass such a measure has great potential to solidify a progressive alliance whose core includes consumer groups, labor, and environmentalists.

Mobilize the Masses

Some of the initial measures passed by Democrats at the beginning of the current Congress (e.g. the minimum wage increase and rollback of oil industry tax breaks) suggest that an increase in the number of members who identify themselves as progressives will make it easier to push for bigger and better policies in the future. But none of these ideas will get much traction with a new president and Congress unless a strong movement intent on making them happen begins to push for them.


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