Back to the Barricades?

January 7th, 2010 by Phil Mattera

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.

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