Archive for the ‘Corporate front groups’ Category

Forward-Looking Corporations and the Backward-Looking Ones

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Google_ALECLarge corporations like to think of themselves as engines of progress. Sometimes they are, though the progress they engender may be a mixed blessing. Other times, however, they are retrogressive, working to preserve the worst practices of the past.

Both of these tendencies have been on display in the news in recent days. In the forward-looking category we have Amazon and Google, which have let it be known that they are exploring what sound like science-fiction options for home delivery of goods.

Amazon revealed it is developing a system of drones that would fly packages from a distribution center to a customer’s home in a matter of minutes after an order is placed. Meanwhile, Google is reported to be working on a delivery system consisting of driverless cars and robots.

Of all the ways that technology could improve everyday life, it is hard to believe that the most compelling is the ability to have a 10-pack of tube socks flown directly to one’s doorstep. It is also unfortunate that these companies are apparently paying little attention to the massive job losses that their innovations could bring about. Yet by some uniquely corporate definition, such innovations would amount to progress.

In the thoroughly backward-looking category we have the American Legislative Exchange Council, the big-business-dominated organization that puts corporate-designed model bills into the hands of conservative state legislators. The Guardian has been publicizing a new batch of leaked ALEC documents that shed new light on the Neanderthal thinking of the organization.

Among the revelations is that ALEC has been working to promote legislation discouraging homeowners from installing solar panels. Dubbed the Electricity Freedom Act, the model bill calls on states to repeal or limit their renewable portfolio standards, which provide the basis for pressuring utilities to purchase excess power generated by houses with the panels. Rather than seeing those homeowners as helping to address climate change problems, an ALEC official told the Guardian that they are “freeriders.”

Discouraging renewable energy is far from the only way that ALEC encourages retrograde policies. The organization has received a torrent of criticism for its role in promoting voter suppression and “stand your ground” gun laws, which represent a return to the eras of Jim Crow and the Wild West.

ALEC has also had disturbing influence over state policymaking through its publication of a series of Rich States, Poor States reports that purport to give a road map to prosperity. A report written by Peter Fisher and published by Good Jobs First (in which I played a small role) shows how these prescriptions—which include shrinking the public sector, suppressing wages and rolling back regulation—amount to nothing but snake oil.

Thanks to other internal ALEC documents just disclosed by the Guardian, we now know that the latest edition of Rich States, Poor States project was funded by $175,000 from the Searle Freedom Trust and $150,000 from the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation. The latter is actually listed in the report as “Koch/Claude Lamb,” which helps make it clear that the foundation is controlled by the Koch Brothers and/or Koch Industries. See more on the foundation here.

It comes as no surprise that the Kochs would be bankrolling such a report, but what’s the story with the Searle Freedom Trust? As Sourcewatch has documented, it is a large funder of rightwing groups such as the American Enterprise Institute at the national level as well as state-level policy groups under the State Policy Network (SPN) umbrella. The trust is featured in the StinkTanks website created by ProgressNow and the Center on Media and Democracy. Another piece just published in the Guardian based on leaked ALEC documents notes that Searle’s connection to the SPN is through its advisor Stephen Moore, an editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal and one of the co-authors of the Rich States, Poor States propaganda.

The money behind the trust comes from the inherited wealth of the late Daniel Searle, who once ran the G.D. Searle pharmaceutical corporation. That corporation, which was acquired by Monsanto in 1985, is largely forgotten. Yet back in the 1980s it was notorious for its Copper-7 birth control device, which was linked to many cases of pelvic infections and infertility. Searle, headed after Daniel Searle’s retirement by Donald Rumsfeld, was found to have been negligent in its testing and marketing of the device.

It is the financial legacy of such corporate irresponsibility which is helping to finance the current rightwing policy agenda. As much as they purport to be forward-looking, today’s corporations supporting that agenda are just as guilty as the Searle Freedom Trust of trying to bring us back to the laissez-faire society of the Gilded Age.

That includes Google, which joined ALEC a couple of months ago (at a time when many corporations are fleeing the group), thus making a mockery of its “do no evil” motto. Equitable public policy, not robotic delivery systems, is what we really need.

Note: The latest addition to my Corporate Rap Sheets collection is about South Korean conglomerate LG and its amazing record of price-fixing scandals.

ALEC Staggers But Will it Fall?

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Wal-Mart’s decision to drop its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council is a milestone in the remarkable effort to drive a wedge between ALEC and the large corporations that have used the organization to promote their self-serving policy agenda at the state level.

At least 18 companies are reported to have cuts ties to ALEC in the face of a pressure campaign spearheaded by groups such as Color of Change, Common Cause, People for the American Way and the Center for Media and Democracy.

The campaign—which has also prevailed against the likes of Amazon.com, Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble—is already one of the most successful corporate accountability initiatives ever undertaken, and more wins are likely to occur. Yet there are also high hurdles to overcome.

Those companies that have succumbed to the anti-ALEC pressure are pretty much all consumer products firms that were concerned about the possibility of boycotts on the part of customers outraged at ALEC’s role in promoting “stand your ground” laws like the one in Florida at the center of the controversy over the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

A decisive win against ALEC will require splitting off a much larger portion of ALEC’s sizeable corporate membership, including companies that are not fazed by consumer unrest. Quite a few firms of this sort are represented on ALEC’s Private Enterprise Board, whose membership roll reads like a rogue’s gallery of corporate irresponsibility.

The pharmaceutical industry, which has fought countless battles over pricing and safety and has been hit with billions of dollars in fines for illegal marketing practices, has several representatives on the board, including the senior vice president of its trade association PhRMA and officials from Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer.

Big tobacco, another battle-hardened industry, is represented by officials from Altria and Reynolds American. The national chair of the board, W. Preston Baldwin, is listed as being affiliated with the corporate strategy consulting firm Centerpoint360, but he used to be an executive with the chewing tobacco producer UST (now owned by Altria).

Also represented on the board are two leading villains of the natural resources sector—petroleum behemoth and climate-change denier ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal producer in the world. For good measure, the board also includes a representative of Koch Industries, which is not only heavily involved in petrochemicals but is also, through the Koch Brothers, one of the primary backers of groups promoting the same kind of rightwing agenda pushed by ALEC.

Apart from those on the board, ALEC’s membership list is believed to still include corporate bad actors such as ASARCO, Bank of America, BP America, Caterpillar, Chevron, Comcast, Corrections Corporation of America, Dow Chemical, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, Monsanto, Northrop Grumman, Shell Oil, T-Mobile and Verizon.

In other words, the effort to cleave off ALEC’s corporate members will increasingly mean taking on companies that are not only notorious but which have a long track record of fending off challenges from labor, environmental and other progressive forces.

It’s true that Wal-Mart, whose vice president for public affairs was serving as secretary on the ALEC board until the company’s departure, is also part of that category. Yet Wal-Mart has been less combative of late, due in large part to the fallout from a foreign bribery scandal and its ongoing effort to give the impression of being an environmental leader. And it is a consumer-oriented company.

So what will it take to knock out these other ALEC loyalists? There’s no easy answer, but it may be necessary for the campaign to treat the relationship of those firms to ALEC in a different way. Until now, the campaign has focused on making ALEC seem like a rogue organization that has adopted positions that diverge from the interests of the target companies. The online petition being circulated by Common Cause states:

Stop risking your company’s reputation. Your association with the American Legislative Exchange Council aligns you and your stockholders with a partisan drive to deny millions of Americans their right to vote, an attack on public schools, and the proliferation of “Stand Your Ground” laws that promote vigilantism.

Your company probably joined ALEC to get help in lobbying for legislation that impacts your business. But ALEC’s agenda these days puts the pursuit of private profit ahead of the public interest. It pulls business leaders like you into a radical ideological crusade involving issues that have nothing to do with your company.

Yet many of the companies listed above continue to support ALEC precisely because it is pursuing a radical ideological crusade that does have something to do with their interests.  The anti-ALEC campaign will have to put more emphasis on the core issues that attract companies to the organization: business tax reduction, deregulation, privatization and other “fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level,” as the ALEC mission statement puts it.

ALEC’s identification with “stand your ground” and voter suppression opened an extraordinary opportunity to put the organization on the defensive, but in the end it is this broader corporate agenda that has to be confronted.

Statehouse Inc.

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

State legislatures, once hailed by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy” because of their progressive innovations, have for the past couple of decades often been hotbeds of plutocracy instead. The blame for this rests in no small part with a shadowy organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Thanks to a WikiLeaks-like initiative by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), we now know a lot more about the way that ALEC operates. CMD obtained and has just made public for the first time the full texts of more than 800 model bills and resolutions secretly approved by ALEC’s corporate and legislative members. These positions are often introduced—in many cases word-for-word—by rightwing state legislators and all too frequently become the law of the land. The trove of documents is available at a website called ALEC Exposed.

ALEC was created in 1973 by the far-sighted conservative strategist Paul Weyrich, who was also involved in the establishment of the Heritage Foundation and other institutions of the Right. Though it never became a household name, ALEC was playing an influential role in the direction of state policymaking as early as the 1980s. A 1984 article in The National Journal, noting that its leaders got “the red carpet treatment from the Reagan White House” when they met in Washington, called ALEC “the New Right group that has done the most to set the conservative agenda at the state level.”

That agenda is the same one being pushed more than a quarter-century later by the greatly expanded cohort of ALEC allies generated by the Republican landslide in last November’s elections: tax limitation, cuts in social spending, restrictions on public employee collective bargaining rights, privatization, reduced regulation of business, school vouchers, and much more.

Corporate critics first began to pay serious attention to ALEC about a decade ago. In 2002 two environmental groups—Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council—issued a report entitled Corporate America’s Trojan Horse in the States that debunked ALEC’s claim of being a non-partisan good government group and showed how it was dominated by and promoted the interests of large companies such as Chevron, Philip Morris and Enron. The legislators who made up the purported membership of ALEC were simply a conduit for policy prescriptions devised by corporate lobbyists and trade associations.

Progressive organizations set up a website called ALEC Watch to monitor the group’s activities and launched a counterpart entity called ALICE (American Legislative Issues Campaign Exchange). The latter was not a great success, but it helped give rise to today’s Progressive States Network.

Additional investigative reporting—including accounts by progressive infiltrators at ALEC events—and analyses such as a May 2010 report by the American Association for Justice called ALEC: Ghostwriting the Law for Corporate America—have revealed more about the group’s modus operandi.

What remained largely secret were the details of the proposed legislative language prepared by ALEC’s corporate members. Now that has changed with the arrival of ALEC Exposed.

The scope of the issues covered by ALEC’s model bills is extraordinary. CMD divides them into seven major categories ranging from worker/consumer rights to tax loopholes/budgets, each of which contains dozens of items on very specific issues.

Within the model bills on worker and consumer rights are, of course, the notorious Paycheck Protection Act (which seeks to weaken union participation in the political process) and the Prevailing Wage Repeal Act. But there’s also a bill that allows gives employers the option to pay workers with prepaid debit cards rather than cash.

There’s a model bill on “class action improvements” (designed to make it harder to certify classes), but also one on “admissibility in civil actions of nonuse of a seat belt.” In the health area, there’s a “model resolution on disease management of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” as well as one on “taxation of moist smokeless tobacco.”

Browsing through the inventory of bills, one comes away with the unsettling feeling that Corporate America is asserting its interest in every single aspect of public policy. Given that corporations and their executives supply legislators not only with model bills but also campaign cash, those interests too often prevail.

Justice Brandeis is also known for having said: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” ALEC is helping to ensure we make the “Right” choice.

Will the Tea Party Movement Turn on Corporate America?

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Like many unlikely marriages, the relationship between the Tea Party movement and Big Business is complicated. There’s no question that corporate money, at least from the likes of billionaire David Koch, has bankrolled the movement via front groups such as Freedom Works and  Americans for Prosperity.

A new film called (Astro)Turf Wars explores how “corporate American is faking a grassroots revolution.” Tea Party idol Glenn Beck has just embraced the U.S. Chamber of Commerce amid charges that it may be injecting foreign money into the midterm elections.

Yet the ideology of many Tea Partyers, to the extent it can be discerned, probably does not conform with mainstream corporate thinking. The movement may even be a threat to some vested business interests.

The misgivings of corporate types outside the Koch camp about the Tea Party phenomenon are becoming more apparent.  As the Center for Responsive Politics points out, Tea Party-backed Republican Senatorial candidates are receiving most of their campaign contributions in small amounts from individuals rather than from the Chamber, business PACs and corporate executives. Business Week has just come out with a cover story headlined: WHY BUSINESS DOESN’T TRUST THE TEA PARTY.

The article dwells on the anxiety of many businesspeople about the erratic and loony aspects of the Tea Partyers. It notes that even in South Carolina the state chamber of commerce could not bring itself to endorse the Tea Party-backed candidate for governor, Nikki Haley.

Yet the potential for a major rift between Tea Partyers and Big Business is more than a matter of political style. Among the core principles espoused by all the Tea Party groups are fiscal responsibility and “free” markets. Although large corporations may talk a similar line, they often seek special benefits from government that undermine fiscal discipline and violate laissez-faire principles.

After all, it was the financial industry that created the necessity for and led the push for the TARP bailout that so enrages Tea Partyers. Big business also received many large government contracts and loan guarantees through the Recovery Act that is also vilified by the movement. Not to mention the fact that the big for-profit insurance companies and other players in the medical-industrial complex stand to make a lot of money from the non-single-payer health reform plan enacted by Congress.

For all the noise they are making, Tea Party candidates could not do much about these programs if they get elected. The real test will be whether rightwing insurgents decide to target the much wider range of pro-corporate tax and spending policies that permeate government at all levels.

Some corporate types are clearly worried about this. In September the Wall Street Journal reported that business leaders and lobbyists fear that Tea Party-backed Republican candidates would oppose “special tax breaks” that benefit various industries, ranging from agribusiness to NASCAR racetracks.

The potential for such a rupture in the unholy alliance between the Tea Party and corporations is one of the few bright spots in the otherwise gloomy political outlook. But rather than sitting back and waiting for this estrangement to happen on its own, we should be looking for opportunities to force the issue and perhaps even reach out to some of the more open-minded rank-and-file elements of the Tea Party world.

It would not be the first time that Left and Right tried to find common ground in opposing “corporate welfare.” Something of the sort happened in the late 1990s when Ralph Nader and Republican House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (who is now running for governor of Ohio) led an effort to identify federal giveaways to business that people across the political spectrum agreed should be eliminated.

That effort ultimately collapsed, but the potential for cooperation is stronger than ever, given the unprecedented market bailouts of the past few years. And as I can attest from my work with Good Jobs First, the issue of runaway corporate subsidies is especially urgent at the state and local level.

It is popular on the Left to assume that the Tea Party movement is little more than a giant front group for corporate interests. Yet it is also possible that David Koch’s money has created a monster that he and his henchmen will ultimately not be able to control.

Wal-Mart Plays the Victim

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

In the mid-1990s business groups such as the American Trucking Association – then led by Thomas Donohue, currently head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – launched a crusade to ban union corporate campaigns. The effort fizzled out, but now Wal-Mart may be trying something similar to thwart site fights pursued by community groups opposed to the opening of the giant retailer’s stores and distribution centers.

The company is pouncing on a story published in the Wall Street Journal in June reporting that rival grocery chains such as Safeway and SuperValu helped to pay for the services of a firm called Saint Consulting Group, which has worked with community groups around the country in campaigns against Wal-Mart projects. The article also reported that Saint’s fees are sometimes paid by the United Food and Commercial Workers. The UFCW does not hide the fact that it works with community groups opposed to the virulently anti-union Wal-Mart, whose expansion threatens the jobs of UFCW members at unionized competitors. The UFCW confirmed to the Journal that it has funded Saint and insisted it had every right to do so. The newspaper said that the rival chains declined to comment.

In a just-published follow-up article, the Journal reports that Wal-Mart is asking courts to compel its opponents to disclose who is paying their legal bills in various environmental lawsuits challenging the company’s expansion. This could be the first step in an effort to get courts and perhaps friendly legislatures to put restrictions on site fights and their funding. While Wal-Mart claims to be most upset about the involvement of its competitors, the company may try to use this issue to weaken community groups and the UFCW, its long-time nemesis.

It is the height of hypocrisy for Wal-Mart to complain about collusion among its adversaries. The beast from Bentonville has never hesitated to use every trick at its disposal – including the funding of front groups – to advance its expansion efforts. Over the summer it succeeded in getting permission to build a second store in Chicago by using tactics such as creating fake community groups and hiring low-income people to pose as demonstrators supposedly eager to get a Wal-Mart job. The company also pretended to have seriously negotiated with unions on wage rates for the store.

Several years ago, Wal-Mart sought to defuse criticism of its detrimental impact on local businesses by launching an “Opportunity Zone” program that amounted to little more than bribing small firms to back its agenda. In 2006 it came to light that two blogs that appeared to be written by independent supporters of the company were actually created by Wal-Mart’s public relations firm, Edelman. That was in addition to reports that the company was cultivating real bloggers, some of whom were repeating company talking points verbatim.

The amount of money Wal-Mart’s competitors have contributed to site fights probably does not compare to what Wal-Mart has spent itself. Apart from the direct costs of those site battles, the company cultivates political support through direct means such as campaign contributions and is believed to make wide use of indirect means such as giving consulting contracts to relatives of public officials.

State and local governments end up paying for the company’s campaigning through the economic development subsidies (estimated at more than $1.2 billion) they give to Wal-Mart and the forms of tax avoidance (estimated at billions more) that the company arranges for itself.

Wal-Mart may feel that the likes of Safeway and Supervalu are violating some unspoken rule by supporting site fights, but it has broken every rule in the book itself in pursuit of endless expansion. But rather than defending those rivals, the most important thing is to be sure Wal-Mart does not exploit this issue to put shackles on community groups and unions, which are often the only forces working against the company’s quest to take over everything.

The Dark Side of Family Business

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Americans love entrepreneurship, and no form of it is more celebrated than the family business. Most of us distrust big banks and giant corporations, but who doesn’t have warm feelings about mom and pop companies or family farms? These are the types of firms that politicians of all stripes want to shower with tax breaks and other forms of government assistance.

The problem is that family enterprises, like pet alligators, may start out as small and cuddly but can grow into large and dangerous monsters. We’ve seen two examples of this recently in connection with the family-owned oil company Koch Industries and the egg empire controlled by the DeCoster Family.

Koch Industries and its principals David and Charles Koch are the subject of a detailed article in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer. Much of the information in the piece has previously come out in blogs, websites and muckraking reports by environment groups, but she does a good job of consolidating those revelations and presenting them in a prestigious outlet.

Mayer describes how the Kochs, who are worth billions, have for decades used their fortune to bankroll a substantial portion of rightwing activism and are currently the big money behind groups such as Americans for Prosperity that are helping coordinate the purportedly grassroots Tea Party movement. What makes the Kochs especially insidious is that they use the guise of philanthropy to fund organizations promoting policy positions – environmental deregulation and global warming denial – that directly serve the Koch corporate interests, which include some of the country’s most polluting and greenhouse-gas-generating operations. The Kochs also contribute heavily to mainstream philanthropic causes such as the Metropolitan Opera and the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to win influential allies and gain respectability.

The DeCosters, whose egg business is at the center of the current salmonella outbreak, are not in the same social circles as the Kochs, but they have an even more egregious record of business misconduct. Hiding behind deceptively modest company names such as Wright County Egg, the family, led by Jack DeCoster, has risen to the top of the egg business while running afoul of a wide range of state and federal regulations.

As journalists such as Alec MacGillis of the Washington Post have recounted, the DeCosters have paid millions of dollars in fines for violating environmental regulations (manure spills), workplace health and safety rules (workers forced to handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands), immigration laws (widespread employment of undocumented workers), animal protection regulations (hens twirled by their necks, kicked into manure pits to drown and subjected to other forms of cruelty), wage and hour standards (failure to pay overtime), and sex discrimination laws (female workers from Mexico molested by supervisors).

Their lawlessness dates back decades. A November 11, 1979 article in the Washington Post about Jack DeCoster’s plan to expand from his original base in Maine to the Eastern Shore of Maryland states that he was leaving behind “disputes over child labor, union organizing drives and citations for safety violations.” In 1988 the Maryland operation was barred from selling its eggs in New York State after an outbreak of salmonella. In 1996 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the DeCosters $3.6 million for making its employees toil in filth. Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich said conditions were “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen.”

The DeCosters were notorious enough to be featured in a 1999 report by the Sierra Club called Corporate Hogs at the Public Trough.  The title referred to the fact that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) such as those operated by the DeCosters were receiving substantial federal subsidies despite their dismal regulatory track record.

Articles about Jack DeCoster invariably describe him as self-made and hard-working. “Jack doesn’t fish, he doesn’t hunt, he doesn’t go to nightclubs,” a farmer in Maine told the New York Times in 1996. “He does business — 18 hours a day.” He was recently described as a “born-again Baptist who has contributed significant amounts of money to rebuild churches in Maine and in Iowa.”

Like the Kochs, DeCoster apparently thinks that some philanthropic gestures will wipe away a multitude of business transgressions. Yet no amount of charitable giving can change the fact that these men grew rich by disregarding the well-being of workers, consumers and the earth. Such are the family values of these family businessmen.

A Corporate Full-Body Scan

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

The one redeeming feature of the abominable Supreme Court ruling on corporate electoral expenditures is the majority’s retention of the rules on disclaimers and disclosure. While opening the floodgates to unlimited business political spending, the Court at least recognizes that the public has a right to know when a corporation is responsible for a particular message and a right to information on a corporation’s overall spending.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy states: “The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

There’s no question that steps must be taken to mitigate the Citizens United ruling, whether through changes in corporation law, shareholder pressure, enhanced public financing of elections, or even a Constitutional amendment.

Yet while these efforts progress, it is also worth taking advantage of the Court’s affirmation of the principle of transparency and push for even greater disclosure than what we have now. Groups such as the Sunlight Foundation are already moving in this direction.

The effort could begin with pressing the Federal Election Commission to tighten the existing reporting rules on what are known as “electioneering communications” and to enforce them more diligently.  But that’s not enough.

In the wake of Citizens United, we’ve got to demand more information on the many ways corporations exercise undue influence not only on elections but also on legislation, policymaking and public discourse in general. Now that Big Business is a much bigger threat to popular democracy, we have to subject corporations to intensive full-body scans to find all their hidden weapons of persuasion. The following are some of the areas to consider.

Lobbying. In his State of the Union Address, President Obama said that lobbyists should be required to disclose every contact with the executive branch or Congress. That’s fine, but why stop there? Many corporations do their lobbying indirectly, through trade associations which disclose little about their sources of funding. How about rules that require those associations to disclose the fees paid by each of their members and require publicly traded companies to disclose exactly how much they pay to belong to each of their various associations?

Front Groups. Corporations also indirectly seek to influence legislation and public opinion by bankrolling purportedly independent non-profit advocacy groups. Such front groups—such as those taking money from fossil-fuel energy producers to deny the reality of the climate crisis—do not have to publicly disclose their contributor lists. Why not require publicly traded companies, at least, to reveal all of their payments to such organizations?

Union-Busting. Encouragement of collective bargaining is still, in theory, official federal policy. Yet many companies violate the principle—and the rights of their workers—by using corporate funds to undermine union organizing campaigns. The existing rules on the disclosure of expenditures on anti-union “consultants” are too narrow and not vigorously enforced. That should change.

These are only a few of the ways that undue political influence and other forms of anti-social corporate behavior could be addressed through better disclosure. Yet, as we’ve seen, transparency by itself does not counteract corporate power unless something is done with the information.

This came to mind in reading the last portion of the Citizens United ruling. Not all five Justices in the majority went along with the idea of maintaining the disclaimer and disclosure rules. Parting with Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and Alito, Justice Thomas argued not only that corporate independent expenditures should be unrestricted, but also that they should be allowed to take place under a veil of secrecy.

He bases his argument not on legal precedent, but rather on dubious anecdotal evidence that some supporters of California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 were subjected to threats of violence after their names appeared on public donor lists. Thomas thus suggests that corporations should be able to make their political expenditures anonymously to avoid retaliation.

While I am in no way advocating violence, I think activists need to use the information that becomes public as the result of expanded disclosure to make corporations pay a price for any attempts to buy our political system. If we can get them to worry about (non-violent) retaliation to the point that they limit their expenditures, then we will have gone a long way toward neutralizing the pernicious effects of the Citizens United ruling.

Back to the Barricades?

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

The news that Byron Dorgan and Christopher Dodd will not run for reelection has Democrats fretting that they will lose their 60-vote supermajority in the Senate and will no longer be able to get anything accomplished.

But what have we got to show, with regard to checking corporate abuses, for the past 12 months of Democratic control over the legislative branch as well as the White House? Last year this time, excitement over Obama’s election and the Democratic gains in Congress persuaded many activists that great things could once again happen in Washington. The big business agenda would supposedly no longer reign supreme, and progressives anticipated major legislative gains regarding healthcare coverage, financial regulation, the climate crisis and union organizing.

Now those expectations seem hopelessly naïve. Rather than radical changes, we’ve ended up with a disappointing series of half-measures, quarter-measures, and stalemates.

The biggest frustration is in the healthcare arena. We seem to be on the verge of getting a new system that will expand coverage and curb some of the most egregious insurance industry abuses, but these improvements come at a high cost. The final bill will likely have a strict individual mandate compelling those without coverage to become customers of a bunch of blood-suckers yet a weak employer mandate allowing many companies to avoid providing decent coverage to their workers. It will not seriously regulate insurance rates yet may end up penalizing union workers who gave up wage increases to get more generous benefits. The bill that squeaked through the Senate and is expected to form the basis of the final legislation is so compromised that veteran reformers such as Physicians for a National Health Program have called for its defeat.

After crippling the economy through reckless investments and forcing millions of homeowners into foreclosure, the big banks have largely been treated with deference by Congressional Democrats and the Obama Administration. Nothing has been done to break up institutions deemed too big to fail and thus able to extort massive taxpayer-funded bailouts. Despite loud complaints from bankers used to sumptuous pay packages, the federal government’s restrictions on executive compensation have been pretty indulgent. The bill that passed the House in December creates a new consumer protection agency for financial services, but it is unclear how much power it will have. And the bill lacks aggressive regulation of the exotic financial instruments that helped bring about the crisis. Separate legislation on credit cards that was enacted curbs some of the industry’s most outrageous practices but does nothing about usurious interest rates.

The climate bill passed by the House in June not only shunned strict emission limits in favor of the dubious cap-and-trade system, but it would allow many major polluters to avoid paying for their emission allowances for up to 20 years. And the overall emission reductions the bill envisions are far below the level needed to make a substantial dent in global warming.

And then there’s the Employee Free Choice Act, the key priority of the labor movement, which did so much to get Obama and many Democrats elected. The legislation has been in suspended animation for many months as Senate leaders apparently cannot muster enough votes to overcome intransigent opposition not only from Republicans but also from some Dems. EFCA remained stalled even after the AFL-CIO signaled it was open to compromise on the key issue of card-check organizing.

Overall, corporate interests have been remarkably successful over the past year in avoiding serious restraints on their freedom of action. Much of what the Democrats are accomplishing amounts to the appearance of reform. It gives the impression that corporate misbehavior is being addressed but is actually inoculating business against more stringent regulation. In the case of healthcare, the situation is even worse: by turning millions into captive customers, Congress is granting unprecedented power and legitimacy to a discredited industry.

There are plenty of obvious explanations for this dismal performance. It is easy to point to the corrupting effect of corporate campaign contributions and lobbying by former Congressional staffers as well as the pernicious role of conservative Democrats and egomaniacs like Joe Lieberman.

But the progressive movement also deserves some of the blame. The euphoria following the 2008 election gave rise to another bout of the delusion that serious change requires nothing more putting in office a certain number of people with the preferred party designation.

During the 1930s FDR is supposed to have told activists in a private meeting: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Although that quote has showed up in several blogs over the past year, the underlying message seems to have been lost on many of today’s activists. With the absence of substantial popular pressure, it has been easier for Congressional Democrats to succumb to the siren song of the corporate interests.

Ironically, it has been the woefully ignorant and confused tea party movement—serving as a witting or unwitting stalking horse for the corporate elite—that has lately shown the power of grassroots mobilization. Their positions make no sense, but the tea baggers have made sure that Congressional Republicans maintain a hard-right stance on everything.

Perhaps we will accomplish more if we return to our own barricades.

Fighting Dirty on Healthcare Reform

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

gangsYou’ve got to hand it to the health insurance corporations and their front groups for knowing how to play hardball. To protect the interests of the industry, they have been willing to spread outlandish allegations about euthanasia, gambling that the ensuing uproar will force nervous Dems to dilute their plan.

It remains to be seen whether the streetfighters ultimately prevail, but for now they have succeeded in reframing the debate. The country has been talking about pulling the plug on grandma when we should be discussing pulling the plug on the likes of Aetna, Cigna and Humana.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress have ruled out euthanizing the for-profit health insurance, leaving us with the alternative of a public plan that would compete with the commercial carriers and supposedly “keep them honest,” as Obama likes to put it.

Since the industry doesn’t seem interested in becoming virtuous, it has instead encouraged opposition to the public option. Apart from whatever behind-the-scenes role it has played in the town hall disruptions carried out by the rightwing lunatic fringe, the major insurers are cultivating the fifth column that is undermining the public option from within the Democratic Party. It’s widely known that members of the Blue Dog Coalition have been showered with campaign contributions from the industry. A recent Business Week cover story entitled “The Health Insurers Have Already Won” details other ways the big insurers have cozied up to and co-opted conservative Dems.

I’ve already written about the suspicious role the Lewin Group, owned by UnitedHealth Group but purportedly editorially independent, has played in the reform debate. Business Week describes how UnitedHealth itself feeds self-serving data to “information-starved congressional staff members.” The magazine depicts an especially close relationship between the company and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who “echoes UnitedHealth’s contention that a so-called public option could be a ‘Trojan horse for a single-payer system.’”

The infatuation of Warner and some other Dems with UnitedHealth is all the more baffling in light of the controversy over the company’s Golden Rule Insurance subsidiary, which has repeatedly been fined by state regulators for deceptive practices. Golden Rule was one of the companies singled-out in a recent House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing on abuses in the individual health insurance market.

Business Week reports that the health insurers consider the battle against the public option already won and are now focusing on shaping the terms under which they will be providing new subsidized coverage. They are, the magazine says, pursuing the “aim of constraining the new benefits that will become available to tens of millions of people who are currently uninsured.”

How long will it be before Obama, having abandoned the public option, finds himself pressured by the health insurers and their surrogates to give ground on other aspects of the reform plan, such as the elimination of lifetime benefit caps? Or the prohibition on denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions?

The insurance reform effort will continue its slide toward irrelevance until Obama recognizes that he is engaged not in a boxing match with Marquis of Queensberry rules but rather a knife fight in which anything goes.

Corporate Lobbying Goes from Fake to Fraud

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

bonnerAs the Yes Men have shown with their impersonations, misrepresentation is sometimes the best way to convey a larger truth. That same lesson has been demonstrated, albeit unintentionally, by the lobbying firm Bonner & Associates, which was just exposed as having forged letters from non-profit organizations to members of Congress expressing opposition to the climate bill. In this case, the larger truth is that much of the support that corporate interests claim for their policy positions is bogus.

The story came to light thanks to the Charlottesville (Virginia) Daily Progress, which revealed that the office of Rep. Tom Perriello had received letters urging him to vote against the climate bill from two local civil rights organizations–Creciendo Juntos and the Albemarle-Charlottesville branch of the NAACP–that were discovered to be forgeries. Additional faked letters were later reported by two other members of Congress.

Soon it was revealed that the letters had been sent out by Bonner, which had been hired by Hawthorn Group to help in its work on behalf of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a major coal industry front group. Bonner, which specializes in fabricating what it calls “strategic grassroots/grasstops” campaigns for large corporations, apologized for the phony letters but insisted they were the work of a rogue employee who has been terminated. This has not prevented a firestorm of criticism and calls from the likes of MoveOn.org and the Sierra Club for a Justice Department investigation of the matter.

Environmental groups are entitled to their righteous indignation, but some of this is akin to expressing shock that gambling is taking place in Casablanca.  The entire point of the Astroturf work done by the likes of Bonner is to be deceptive–to give the misleading impression that there is a groundswell of support for the policy positions of big business.

The Bonner firm, founded in 1984 by former Congressional aide Jack Bonner (photo), made its name creating bogus campaigns on behalf of clients such as the banking industry (to fight proposals to lower permissible interest rates on credit cards) and the auto industry (to fight stricter fuel efficiency standards). In 1997 Ken Silverstein wrote a piece in Mother Jones describing Bonner as “a leader in the growing field of fake grassroots” lobbying.

In other words, Bonner is in the business of generating communications to members of Congress that are “real” messages from fake organizations. The current case involves fake messages from real organizations. It’s too soon to tell whether this represents a new tactic by the firm or an employee simply got confused about which aspects of the messages are supposed to be bogus. But either way, firms such as Bonner are helping large corporations co-opt political discourse.

Even more ominous are the supposedly spontaneous disruptions of town hall meetings being held by members of Congress. These confrontations are being carried out by rightwing opponents of healthcare reform–such as the group FreedomWorks–serving the interests of the for-profit medical establishment. It is bad enough when agents of business try to manipulate “civilized” communication with members of Congress; it is much worse when they begin to act like storm troopers trying to intimidate elected officials  from diverging from the corporate line.