Archive for the ‘Corporate Lobbying’ Category

Corporate America’s Government Bonanza

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

moneybagsontherunWe’re taught to believe that government is a system for protecting the country, ensuring justice and helping people pursue happiness. For large corporations, on the other hand, government amounts to a big investment opportunity.

One of the most detailed assessments of the return on that investment has just been produced by the Sunlight Foundation. Not surprisingly, it turns out that the interaction big business has with the public sector is very profitable. What’s amazing is Sunlight’s estimate of the magnitude of those gains.

In its report called Fixed Fortunes, Sunlight takes great pains in estimating both what 200 of the largest and most politically active firms spend on government – in the form of campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures – and what they receive in benefits. Sunlight puts those benefits in two categories: federal business and federal support.

The first includes federal contracts as well as foreign sales enabled by the Export-Import Bank and certain transactions involving commercial banks in the wake of the financial meltdown. Federal support includes grants, loans and loan guarantees as well as other forms of assistance to banks following the meltdown.

Sunlight finds that the 200 companies spent $5.8 billion on political influence during the period from 2007 to 2012 while receiving $1.3 trillion in federal business and $3.2 trillion in federal support. This shows, Sunlight says, that for every dollar spent on influencing federal policy, these corporations received $760 in benefits. And that’s just the average. Some of the big banks got vastly more. Goldman Sachs received about $229 billion in business and support combined, more than 6,000 times what it spent on influence. For Bank of America it was more than 10,000 times. These are rates of return even the most successful hedge funds couldn’t imagine.

In some ways, Sunlight’s benefit numbers are understated, since they do not include the payoff from lobbying for corporate income tax reductions. The report includes figures from Citizens for Tax Justice showing the low effective tax rates most large companies enjoy, but Sunlight does not attempt the probably impossible task of estimating the dollar value of the tax benefits individual companies have gained from their lobbying efforts. Sunlight points out other examples of unquantifiable benefits corporations receive from Uncle Sam, such as those deriving from the artificially low rates charged to petroleum companies for drilling on federal land.

Moreover, Sunlight acknowledges that its estimates apply only at the federal level, though in its summary list of the results for the 200 companies it includes links to the state and local subsidy totals my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have assembled in our Subsidy Tracker database.

On the other hand, one could take issue with the way in which Sunlight calculates some of the categories of federal support. For loan and loan guarantee programs, for example, it apparently uses the face value of the funding, whereas the actual cost (except in cases of default) is much lower. It would have been helpful if Sunlight had listed the totals derived from each form of assistance; it is not always clear which numbers it used in the underlying spreadsheets it makes available.

Despite these quibbles, Sunlight has performed a great service in documenting the extent to which the federal government functions as a giant ATM for corporate America. We at Good Jobs First will soon be contributing to this effort by extending Subsidy Tracker to the federal level. We’ve been gathering data on many of the same programs examined by Sunlight, plus others, and we will be including entries for all companies, both large and small.

Let’s hope that as more light is shined on the ways government benefits corporations, we can shame elected officials into remembering who it is they are supposed to be serving.

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.

The Kochs’ Stake in Pollution

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Accountability_LATimesPuppets_300x250_FINALREVISED050813_2Koch Industries and the billionaire brothers who run it are best known for their involvement in rightwing causes. The latest controversy is over the Kochs’ reported interest in purchasing the Los Angeles Times and other major newspapers owned by the Tribune Co. A campaign centered in L.A. is mobilizing opposition to such a deal among newspaper subscribers and Tribune shareholders, warning that a Koch takeover would create a new Fox News.

What often gets forgotten is that Koch Industries is not just part of the Koch ideological machine. It is a huge privately-held conglomerate with annual revenues of more than $100 billion and operations ranging from oil pipelines and refining to paper products (it owns Georgia-Pacific), synthetic fibers (it bought Lyrca and Stainmaster producer Invista from DuPont), chemicals, mining and cattle ranching.

I’ve just completed one of my Corporate Rap Sheets on Koch Industries, and it’s clear that the sins of the company go far beyond the political realm. The following is some of what I found.

In November 2011 the magazine Bloomberg Markets published a lengthy article entitled “The Secret Sins of Koch Industries” that made some explosive accusations against the company: “For six decades around the world, Koch Industries has blazed a path to riches—in part, by making illicit payments to win contracts, trading with a terrorist state, fixing prices, neglecting safety and ignoring environmental regulations. At the same time, Charles and David Koch have promoted a form of government that interferes less with company actions.”

What Bloomberg revealed for the first time were the allegations involving bribery and dealing with Iran. The article reported that the company’s subsidiary Koch-Glitsch paid bribes to secure contracts in six countries (Algeria, Egypt, India, Morocco, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia) and that it violated U.S. sanctions by doing business with Iran, including the sale of materials that helped the country build the world’s largest plant to convert natural gas to methanol used in plastics, paints and chemicals.

The environmental cases alluded to by Bloomberg had been previously reported and included the following.

In 1995 the U.S Justice Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the United Stated Coast Guard filed a civil suit against Koch Industries and several of its affiliates for unlawfully discharging millions of gallons of oil into the waters of six states. In one of the largest Clean Water Act cased ever brought up to that time, the agencies accused Koch of being responsible for more than 300 separate spills in Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

In 1997 Tosco Corporation (now part of ConocoPhillips) sued Koch in a dispute over costs related to the clean-up of toxic waste at an oil refinery in Duncan, Oklahoma that used to be owned and operated by Koch. In 1998 a federal judge ordered Koch to contribute to those costs, and that ruling was upheld by an appeals court in 2000. The companies later settled the matter out of court.

In 1998 Koch agreed to pay $6.9 million to settle charges brought by state environmental regulators relating to large oil spills at the company’s Rosemount refinery in Minnesota. The following year it agreed to plead guilty to related federal criminal charges and pay $8 million in fines.

Also in 1998, the National Transportation Safety Board found that the failure of a Koch subsidiary to protect a liquid butane pipeline from corrosion was responsible for a 1996 rupture that released a butane vapor. When a pickup truck drove into the vapor it ignited an explosion that killed the driver and a passenger. In a wrongful death lawsuit a Texas jury awarded the father of one of the victims $296 million in damages.

In 2000 the U.S. Justice Department and the EPA announced that Koch Industries would pay what was then a record civil environmental fine of $30 million to settle the 1995 charges relating to more than 300 oil spills plus additional charges filed in 1997. Along with the penalty, Koch agreed to spend $5 million on environmental projects in Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, the states where most of its spills had occurred. In announcing the settlement, EPA head Carol Browner said that Koch had quit inspecting its pipelines and instead found flaws by waiting for ruptures to happen.

Later in 2000, DOJ and the EPA announced that Koch Industries would pay a penalty of $4.5 million in connection with Clean Air Act violations at its refineries in Minnesota and Texas. The company also agreed to spend up to $80 million to install improved pollution-control equipment at the facilities.

In a third major environmental case against Koch that year, a federal grand jury in Texas returned a 97-count indictment against the company and four of its employees for violating federal air pollution and hazardous waste laws in connection with benzene emissions at the Koch refinery near Corpus Christi.

The Bloomberg Markets article reported that a former Koch employee said she was told to falsify data in a report to the state on the emissions.  The company was reportedly facing potential penalties of some $350 million, but in early 2001 the newly installed Bush Administration’s Justice Department negotiated a settlement in which many of the charges were dropped and the company pled guilty to concealing violations of air quality laws and paid just $10 million in criminal fines and $10 million for environmental projects in the Corpus Christi area.

With the purchase of Georgia-Pacific in 2005, Koch acquired a company with its own environmental and safety problems. For example, in 1984 a G-P plant in Columbus, Ohio had spilled 2,000 pounds of phenol and formaldehyde that reached a nearby community. Residents complained of health problems from that incident and from a huge industrial waste pond that the company continued to maintain at the plant.

In 2009 the U.S. Justice Department and the EPA announced that G-P would spend $13 million to perform clean-up activities at a Michigan Superfund site where it previously had a paper mill. In 2010 G-P was one of ten companies sued by the Justice Department over PCB contamination of the Fox River in Wisconsin. Unlike the other defendants, G-P had already settled with DOJ by agreeing to a $7 million penalty and to pay for the costs of a portion of the clean-up. One of the other defendants, Appleton Papers, called the settlement a “sweetheart deal.”

More recently, Koch Industries has been caught up in the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline. In 2011 Inside Climate News reported that Koch already responsible for 25 percent of the tar sands oil being imported from Canada into the United States and stood to benefit greatly from the new pipeline. Koch denied its involvement, but Inside Climate News found documents filed with Canada’s Energy Board contradicting that statement.

An August 2012 report by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst identified Koch as being among the top five corporate air polluters in the United States.

The reason the Kochs rail against regulation is clear: they’ve got a big stake in pollution.

Note:  The full rap sheet on Koch Industries can be found here.

The Corporate Entitlement Problem

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

To the extent that the United States has a real fiscal crisis, it has been exacerbated by aggressive tax avoidance on the part of big business. Now the chief executives of many of those same giant corporations are inserting themselves at the center of the current fiscal cliff debate, claiming they know what is best for the country.

The Campaign to Fix the Debt, whose “CEO Fiscal Leadership Council” now has more than 100 members from the corporate elite, is not, of course, proposing that the Fortune 500 start paying its fair share of federal taxes. In fact, the group is pursuing an agenda that may very well result in their companies’ paying even less to Uncle Sam.

As the Institute for Policy Studies has pointed out, companies represented in Fix the Debt stand to save tens of billions of dollars from the territorial tax system the campaign seems to be promoting. IPS has also shown the hypocrisy in the fact that the Fix the Debt CEOs calling for “reforms” in Social Security have fat personal retirement assets from their companies, while many of those firms are underfunding their employee pension plans.

There are numerous other ways in which the companies represented in Fix the Debt are far from honest brokers in dealing with the fiscal cliff—and in actuality engage in practices that exacerbate the country’s fiscal and economic problems.

Take the fact that among those companies are some of the most anti-union employers in the United States, beginning with Honeywell, whose CEO David Cote is on the steering committee of Fix the Debt and is one of its main spokespeople. After members of the Steelworkers union at a uranium facility in Illinois balked at company demands for the elimination of retiree health benefits, reductions in pension benefits and other severe contract concessions, Honeywell locked them out for 12 months.

Also on the council is Lowell McAdam of Verizon Communications, which for years has fought against union organizing at its Verizon Wireless unit and took a hard line in its most recent round of contract negotiations covering its unionized workforce.

Then there is Douglas Oberhelman, the CEO of Caterpillar, which has one of the most contentious labor relations histories of any large company, including a 15-week strike at one plant earlier this year prompted by management demands for far-reaching contract concessions.

Not to mention W. James McNerney, Jr. of Boeing, which was accused of opening an assembly plant in right-to-work South Carolina as a form of retaliation against union activism at its traditional manufacturing center in the Seattle area.

These anti-union crusaders have helped bring about a climate of wage stagnation that not only undermines the living standards of their employees but also weakens businesses that depend on their purchasing power.

Fix the Debt CEOs also seem to think that their companies deserve to be lavishly rewarded when they make investments that create jobs. While it is difficult to discern these rewards at the federal level, where they come through the fine print of the Internal Revenue Code, the payoffs are abundantly clear in the lucrative subsidy deals the corporations receive from state and local governments.

For example, that Boeing plant did not only get the promise of a workforce that in all likelihood will remain unorganized. South Carolina also bestowed on the company a state and local subsidy package that has been valued at more than $900 million.

Verizon has received more than $180 million in subsidies from state and local governments around the country. Caterpillar got an $8.5 million grant from Gov. Rock Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund as well as local subsidies when it eliminated jobs in Illinois and opened a new plant in the Lone Star State. Honeywell has received subsidies in at least 14 states.

The subsidy recipients represented in Fix the Debt are not limited to that anti-union group; there are many others. For example, Goldman Sachs, whose CEO Lloyd Blankfein has been a frequent spokesperson for the campaign, took advantage of $1.65 billion in low-cost Liberty Bonds when building its new headquarters in Lower Manhattan.

The refusal of these companies to deal respectfully with unionized workers and their insistence on taking lavish taxpayer subsidies they don’t need are two symptoms of a flawed business culture. The United States does have an entitlement problem, but it is not related to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. It is the notion held by too many large corporations and their CEOs that their narrow interests are synonymous with the national interest. Rather than presuming to fix the debt, big business needs to fix itself.

————————

New in CORPORATE RAP SHEETS: a dossier on drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, including its $3 billion fraud settlement with the federal government.

Corporate Power and the Second Obama Administration

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

The corporate lobby is dumbfounded. After spending billions of dollars to defeat President Obama and take Republican control of the Senate, business interests have nothing to show for their efforts.

By all rights, Thomas Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which went all-out for Republican candidates, should be handing in his resignation. The Big Business-loving editorial page of the Wall Street Journal should be exhibiting a bit of contrition.

Instead, Donohue issued a press release reiterating the Chamber’s laissez-faire position: “It is the private sector that drives economic growth and jobs, and it is the government’s responsibility to work on a bipartisan basis to pass policies that will unleash the private sector and help put Americans back to work.”  The Journal warns Obama not to “consider his reelection to be a mandate to repeat his first-term record of rejecting all GOP ideas and insisting on his priorities.” God forbid that a President returned to office with a resounding victory should seek to promote his own priorities.

Even with the election is over, conservatives cannot let go of their caricature of Obama as a radical leftist who refuses to compromise. This may have something to do with the fact that many of them are radical rightists who refuse to compromise.

After Obama was first elected in 2008, the Journal predicted that he would “seek middle ground with business on thorny issues.” You wouldn’t know it from the campaign, but that was often what happened during the past four years.  Far from being the Bolshevik envisioned in the fevered imagination of his critics, Obama led Democrats in pursuing an agenda that was solidly middle-of-the-road or, in some respects, conservative, by earlier standards. Let’s recall that Obama:

  • Promoted and got enacted a healthcare reform plan that preserves the private insurance industry;
  • Enacted a stimulus plan that, among other things, funneled billions into subsidies, grants and contracts for large corporations;
  • Helped rescue the auto industry through a plan that forced workers to make major contract concessions and that took a hands-off approach to the management of companies such as General Motors and Chrysler that received tens of billions in federal aid;
  • Occasionally talked tough but ultimately did little to prosecute the financial institutions that were responsible for the near meltdown of the economy through predatory lending and reckless speculation;
  • Enacted a financial reform bill that allowed venal megabanks such as Citigroup to remain in existence and then did little to challenge Republican efforts to stonewall implementation of its consumer protection provisions;
  • Abandoned, in the face of Republican opposition, the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act and cap-and-trade legislation;
  • Continued the practice of allowing corporate criminals to escape real punishment through deferred prosecution agreements;
  • Continued to promote the myth of “clean coal” and adopted a weak or inconsistent position on dangerous energy practices such as offshore drilling and fracking;
  • Went along with the wrong-headed notion that corporate income tax rates are too high;
  • Claimed to be reducing the influence of corporate lobbyists but chose as a senior advisor someone who also serves as a strategist for clients such as military contractor Pratt & Whitney and Keystone XL pipeline developer TransCanada;
  • Declined to directly criticize large profitable companies that have refused to rehire adequate numbers of U.S. workers; and
  • Chose executives from union-unfriendly offshore outsourcers such as General Electric to advise him on job creation.

The list could go on. By any reasonable assessment, this record could be considered business-friendly or at least not overly hostile. The problem is that business groups are comparing the reality of Obama to a fantasy of token regulation, minimal taxation, vanished unions—in other words, totally unfettered corporate power—and thus feel frustrated.

Unfortunately, left to its own devices, a second Obama Administration is likely to go on trying to placate corporate interests and the Right by promoting policies that will never satisfy them but will dilute critical progressive goals.  Wouldn’t it be great if the President felt he needed to try that hard to satisfy the other end of the political spectrum?

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.

Banking on Boeing

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Recent passage of a piece of federal legislation on a broadly bipartisan basis was considered unusual enough for the Washington Post to treat it as front-page news. Yet what was most significant about the measure to extend the life of the U.S. Export-Import Bank was not its bipartisanship but rather the way it revealed a profound confusion on the part of both major political parties about how the federal government should relate to big business.

The fate of the Ex-Im Bank, which for decades has served mainly as a tool to promote exports by large U.S. manufacturers, had come into question after it was targeted by tea party types in Congress. While conservatives are usually inclined to do everything possible (short of bailouts) to assist corporations, many had come to accept the view that the Ex-Im Bank was an unjustified form of government intervention. Utah Senator Mike Lee denounced the bank’s operations as “corporate welfare that distorts the market and feeds crony capitalism.”

Supposedly anti-corporate Congressional Democrats joined with the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to defend the Ex-Im Bank. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said that Congress had to send “a strong signal to American businesses: we will help them get their products into markets abroad, and in doing so, we will create jobs here at home.” Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, maintained his long-time opposition to the bank.

In the end, the corporatist wings of the two major parties prevailed, but not before the Ex-Im Bank had been pummeled by conservatives who had begun denouncing the institution as “Boeing’s Bank.” They have a valid point. A huge portion of the agency’s resources have long been devoted to that one company. If you look at the list of loans and long-term guarantees in the bank’s annual report, Boeing’s name shows up repeatedly—more than 40 times last year, far more than any other company. The company got assistance in its deals to sell planes to airlines in more than 20 countries such as Angola, Indonesia and Tajikistan.

The right has assumed the role of Ex-Im Bank critic once occupied by the left. Back in 1974 the anti-imperialist magazine NACLA’s Latin America & Empire Report published a critique of the bank that concluded with the following statement: “Confronted by a world increasingly hostile to U.S. imperialism, strategists will employ the credit levers of the Eximbank in the coming years to punish countries that nationalize American corporations, and to reward those nations that cater to U.S. commercial interests.”

Eliminating Ex-Im Bank’s credit assistance was high on the list of programs proposed for elimination in the Aid for Dependent Corporations reports issued by the Ralph Nader group Essential Information in the 1990s. By that point libertarian groups such as the Cato Institute were also speaking out against the bank and other forms of corporate welfare. Also lining up against the bank were environmental groups concerned about its role—along with that of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation—in enabling hazardous projects such as the Three Gorges Dam in China.

The contemporary right’s misgivings about the Ex-Im Bank have nothing to do, of course, with anti-imperialism or environmental protection—and everything to do with absolutist ideas about the role of government. The problem these conservatives face is that the actual behavior of large corporations frequently bears little resemblance to pure free-market principles.

Boeing, for instance, is not only perfectly willing to accept federal export assistance but has also sought and obtained billions of dollars in state and local economic development subsidies for its U.S. plants. Its decision to locate a Dreamliner production facility in South Carolina garnered a subsidy package estimated to be worth more than $900 million. The company’s hold over the Palmetto State is so strong that it drove a wedge between South Carolina’s two paleo-conservative U.S. Senators during the Ex-Im debate, with Jim DeMint holding to laissez-faire principles while Lindsey Graham warned that eliminating the bank would jeopardize aerospace jobs.

When it comes to labor relations issues, Boeing suddenly turns into an ardent opponent of government. When the National Labor Relations Board took seriously an allegation by the Machinists that the company’s investment in South Carolina was a form of anti-union retaliation, Boeing screamed bloody murder and got support from all of the state’s leading politicians—and most of the corporate world.

It will be interesting to see how conservatives handle this tension between lionizing large corporations and demonizing them. The outcome of the Ex-Im debate suggests that, for now, corporatists retain the upper hand across the mainstream political spectrum.

Wal-Mart and Watergate

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Wal-Mart has been probably been accused of more types of misconduct than any other large corporation. The latest additions to the list are bribery and obstruction of justice. In an 8,000-word exposé published recently in the New York Times, top executives at the giant retailer are reported to have thwarted and ultimately shelved an internal investigation of extensive bribes paid by lower-level company officials to expand Wal-Mart’s market share in Mexico.

While Wal-Mart’s outrageous behavior is often in a class by itself, the bribery aspects of the allegations are far from unique. In fact, Wal-Mart is actually a late arrival to a sizeable group of major corporations that have found themselves in legal jeopardy because of what in corporate circles are politely called questionable foreign payments.

That jeopardy has grown more significant in recent years as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice have stepped up enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or FCPA, which prohibits overseas bribery by U.S.-based corporations and foreign companies with a substantial presence in the United States.

It is often forgotten that the Watergate scandal of the 1970s was not only about the misdeeds of the Nixon Administration. Investigations by the Senate and the Watergate Special Prosecutor forced companies such as 3M, American Airlines and Goodyear Tire & Rubber to admit that they or their executives had made illegal contributions to the infamous Committee to Re-Elect the President.

Subsequent inquiries into illegal payments of all kinds led to revelations that companies such as Lockheed, Northrop and Gulf Oil had engaged in widespread foreign bribery. Under pressure from the SEC, more than 150 publicly traded companies admitted that they had been involved in questionable overseas payments or outright bribes to obtain contracts from foreign governments. A 1976 tally by the Council on Economic Priorities found that more than $300 million in such payments had been disclosed in what some were calling “the Business Watergate.”

While some observers insisted that a certain amount of baksheesh was necessary to making deals in many parts of the world, Congress responded to the revelations by enacting the FCPA in late 1977. For the first time, bribery of foreign government officials was a criminal offense under U.S. law, with fines up to $1 million and prison sentences of up to five years.

The ink was barely dry on the FCPA when U.S. corporations began to complain that it was putting them at a competitive disadvantage. The Carter Administration’s Justice Department responded by signaling that it would not be enforcing the FCPA too vigorously. That was one Carter policy that the Reagan Administration was willing to adopt. In fact, Reagan’s trade representative Bill Brock led an effort to get Congress to weaken the law, but the initiative failed.

The Clinton Administration took a different approach—trying to get other countries to adopt rules similar to the FCPA. In 1997 the industrial countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reached agreement on an anti-bribery convention. In subsequent years, the number of FCPA cases remained at a miniscule level—only a handful a year. Optimists were claiming this was because the law was having a remarkable deterrent effect. Skeptics said that companies were being more careful to conceal their bribes, and prosecutors were focused elsewhere.

Any illusion that commercial bribery was a rarity was dispelled in 2005, when former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker released the final results of the investigation he had been asked to conduct of the Oil-for-Food Program in Iraq. Volcker’s group found that more than half of the 4,500 companies participating in the program—which was supposed to ease the impact of Western sanctions on Iraq—had paid illegal surcharges and kickbacks to the government of Saddam Hussein. Among those companies were Siemens, DaimlerChrysler and the French bank BNP Paribas.

The Volcker investigation, the OECD convention, and the Sarbanes-Oxley law (whose mandates about financial controls made it more difficult to conceal improper payments) breathed new life into FCPA enforcement during the final years of the Bush Administration and after President Obama took office.

The turning point came in November 2007, when Chevron agreed to pay $30 million to settle charges about its role in Oil-for-Food corruption. Then, in late 2008, Siemens agreed to pay the Justice Department, the SEC and European authorities a record $1.6 billion in fines to settle charges that it had routinely paid bribes to secure large public works projects around the world. This was a huge payout in relation to previous FCPA penalties, yet it was a bargain in that the big German company avoided a guilty plea or conviction that would have disqualified it from continuing to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts.

In February 2009 Halliburton and its former subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root agreed to pay a total of $579 million to resolve allegations that they bribed government officials in Nigeria over a ten-year period. A year later, the giant British military contractor BAE Systems reached settlements totaling more than $400 million with the Justice Department and the UK Serious Fraud Office to resolve longstanding multi-country bribery allegations. In April 2010 Daimler and three of its subsidiaries paid $93 million to resolve FCPA charges. Other well-known companies that have settled similar bribery cases since the beginning of 2011 include Tyson Foods, IBM, and Johnson & Johnson. In most cases companies have followed the lead of Siemens in negotiating non-prosecution or deferred prosecution deals that avoided criminal convictions.

A quarter century after the Watergate investigation revealed a culture of corruption in the foreign dealings of major corporations, the new wave of FCPA prosecutions suggests that little has changed. There is one difference, however. Whereas the bribery revelations of the 1970s elicited a public outcry, the cases of the past few years have generated relatively little comment in the United States—except for the complaints of corporate apologists that the FCPA is too severe. Among those apologists are board members of the Institute for Legal Reform (a division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), whose ranks have included the top ethics officer of Wal-Mart.

The Wal-Mart case could turn out to be a much bigger deal than previous FCPA cases—for the simple reason that the mega-retailer appears to have forgotten Watergate’s central lesson that the cover-up is often punished more severely than the crime. A company that has often avoided serious consequences for its past misconduct may finally pay a high price.

Employers Stand their Ground

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

These are heady days for the corporate accountability movement. Threats of consumer boycotts prompted half a dozen major companies to drop out of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which in turn forced ALEC to cease its efforts to get states to enact “stand your ground” laws like the one in Florida at the center of an uproar over the shooting of an unarmed teenager.

At the same time, institutional investors humiliated Citigroup by rejecting a board-approved compensation package for its senior executives. Although the “say on pay” resolution is non-binding, it will in all likelihood result in smaller paydays for top officers of an institution that epitomizes financial sector misconduct. This comes on the heels of an announcement by Goldman Sachs that it would change its board structure in response to pressure from the capital strategies arm of the public employee union AFSCME.

Environmentalists have succeeded in stalling and perhaps killing the disastrous Keystone XL pipeline . The past few months have also seen a surge in protest over working conditions at the Chinese plants that produce the wildly popular Apple iPad tablets. Apple’s manufacturing contractor Foxconn was forced to boost pay for factory workers, while Apple itself faced demonstrations at many of its normally idolized retail stores. The Apple campaign and others are being propelled by new online services such as Sum of Us and Change.org that mobilize online pressure for a variety of anti-corporate initiatives.

Missing from all this positive momentum is a significant victory for the U.S. labor movement. While major corporations have bowed to pressure from consumers and shareholders, they are standing their ground against unions.

Rather than making concessions, large private-sector employers are looking to further roll back labor’s power. Companies such as American Airlines and Hostess Brands (maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread) have filed for Chapter 11 and are using the bankruptcy courts to decimate their collective bargaining agreements and gut pension plans.

Verizon continues to stonewall in negotiations with members of the Communications Workers of America, who struck the company for two weeks last summer in the face of unprecedented concessionary demands from management but then went back to work without a new contract. CWA is also facing difficult negotiations with AT&T, even though the union went out on a limb to support the company’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to take over T-Mobile.

There have been a few relatively bright spots for labor. For example, after being locked out for three months, Steelworkers union members at Cooper Tire and Rubber managed to negotiate a new contract that excluded the company’s demand for a five-tier wage structure with no guaranteed pay increases.

Yet organized labor has not been able to take the offensive in a significant way, and employers continue to feel emboldened. This comes through loud and clear in the results of the latest Employers Bargaining Objectives survey conducted by Bloomberg BNA (summarized in the April 11 edition of Labor Relations Week).

“Employers are fairly brimming with confidence as they head into 2012 talks,” Bloomberg BNA writes. “Nine out of 10 of the employers surveyed are either fairly confident or highly confident of obtaining the goals they have set for their labor agreements.”

Those goals, of course, do not include hikes in pay and improvements in working conditions. In fact, only 11 percent of respondents said they expected to have to negotiate significant wage increases, while 27 percent said they planned to bargain for no improvements at all in wage rates. Many employers expect to shift more health care costs to workers, and few expect to agree to stronger job security provisions.

Employers are prepared to play hardball in seeking their objectives. For example, one-quarter of manufacturing-sector respondents told Bloomberg BNA they would be likely to resort to a lockout of workers if they did not get their way in negotiations. Corporations have little fear of strikes, which are all but extinct, and if workers do dare to walk out, employers are confident of prevailing—or at least maintaining the kind of impasse that exists at Verizon.

Such arrogance is not surprising at a time when unemployment levels remain high and private-sector unionization rates are abysmally low. The question is what it will take to shatter employer intransigence.

One piece of the solution is greater cooperation between unions and the rest of the broader corporate accountability movement, and that’s exactly what seems to be emerging from the 99% Spring offensive.

Strong private sector unions in the United States are an essential check on the power of large corporations and one of the most effective vehicles for raising living standards. Corporate accountability will mean much more when big business is running away not only from ALEC but also from union-busting.

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.