Archive for August, 2009

Will Corporate Cash be Allowed to Overwhelm Elections?

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

nast moneybag2If the United States were a country truly committed to democracy, we would now be having a national discussion on limiting the role of big money in politics. After all, we are still recovering from a financial crisis brought on by an orgy of deregulation instigated by Wall Street interests that spent lavishly to influence members of Congress from both major parties and then had to be bailed out by taxpayers. Major auto companies such as General Motors, which for years successfully lobbied to weaken fuel-economy standards, also had to be bailed out when they could no longer sell gas-guzzling SUVs.

Instead, the role of corporate money is stronger than ever. Rather than having the decency of withdrawing from the policy arena, bailed-out companies have continued to lobby for weaker regulation. At the same time, the insurance industry has thrown a monkey wrench into long-overdue healthcare reform by making hefty contributions to conservative Democrats. The energy industry used its resources to weaken the climate bill.

And now the U.S. Supreme Court may be preparing to open the floodgates completely. In June the high court took the unusual step of announcing it would hold a special hearing this September on a case involving a rightwing advocacy group, Citizens United, which ran afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law in connection with its distribution of a film attacking Hillary Rodham Clinton during the last presidential campaign. Instead of ruling narrowly on the case, which involves some of the technicalities of McCain-Feingold, the Court signaled that it wanted to reconsider the entire question of corporate political spending. Direct corporate contributions to federal campaign were first banned in 1907, and independent campaign expenditures by business corporations were prohibited in 1947.

There is little doubt that this unusual move was promoted by conservative justices such as Scalia and Thomas who think that any restrictions on corporate electoral spending are violations of the First Amendment. And it is no surprise that pro-business groups are generally praising the Court for taking on the issue, conveniently discarding their usual disdain for judicial activism.

Meanwhile, progressive watchdog groups such as Public Citizen are sounding the alarm, warning that eliminating limits on corporate spending would allow large companies to use their resources to buy elections with impunity.

The cynical way of looking at this is that Big Business already manages to dominate the electoral system through its political action committees and lobbying expenditures, so uncontrolled spending would not make much difference. The danger, however, is that eliminating the restrictions would allow capital to completely overwhelm the electoral system. And it would be a huge boon for the destructive principle of corporate personhood, the basis on which business interests exercise such outsized influence over American life.

What makes this issue trickier is that the cases in question deal not only with political expenditures by business corporations but also ones made by labor unions and non-profit corporations.  Unfortunately, there is a long legal tradition of treating democratic organizations such as unions as equivalent to business corporations, which are undemocratic entities that should have no constitutional rights.

That is not going to change anytime soon. Meanwhile, we can only hope that reason prevails and the Supreme Court does not turn the electoral system into a total financial free-for-all.

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.

Corporations and the Amazon

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

amazonThese days just about every large corporation would have us believe that it is in the vanguard of the fight to reverse global warming. Companies mount expensive ad campaigns to brag about raising their energy efficiency and shrinking their carbon footprint.

Yet a bold article in the latest issue of business-friendly Bloomberg Markets magazine documents how some large U.S.-based transnationals are complicit in a process that does more to exacerbate the climate crisis than anything else: the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rain forest.

While deforestation is usually blamed on local ranchers and loggers, Bloomberg points the finger at companies such as Alcoa and Cargill, which the magazine charges have used their power to get authorities in Brazil to approve large projects that violate the spirit of the country’s environmental regulations.

Alcoa is constructing a huge bauxite mine that will chew up more than 25,000 acres of virgin jungle in an area, the magazine says, “is supposed to be preserved unharmed forever for local residents.” Bloomberg cites Brazilian prosecutors who have been waging a four-year legal battle against an Alcoa subsidiary that is said to have circumvented the country’s national policies by obtaining a state rather than a federal permit for the project.

Bloomberg also focuses on the widely criticized grain port that Cargill built on the Amazon River. Cargill claims to be discouraging deforestation by the farmers supplying the soybeans that pass through the port, but the Brazilian prosecutors interviewed by Bloomberg expressed skepticism that the effort was having much effect.

Apart from the big on-site projects, Bloomberg looks at major corporations that it says purchase beef and leather from Amazonian ranchers who engage in illegal deforestation. Citing Brazilian export records, the magazine identifies Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Kraft Foods and Carrefour as purchasers of the beef and General Motors, Ford and Mercedes-Benz as purchasers of leather.

The impact of the Amazon cattle ranchers was also the focus of a Greenpeace report published in June. That report put heat on major shoe companies that are using leather produced by those ranchers.

Nike and Timberland responded to the study by pledging to end their use of leather hides from deforested areas in the Amazon basin. Greenpeace is trying to get other shoe companies to follow suit.

Think of the Amazon the next time a company such as Wal-Mart tells us what wonderful things it is doing to address the climate crisis.

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.