In recent days we’ve seen reprises of that old stand-by from the Congressional repertoire: hearings in which members of the House and Senate express indignation at corporate misconduct. Like similar performances that have come before, these events provided some short-term gratification but in all likelihood will ultimately prove frustrating.
The designated whipping boys this week were General Motors and Caterpillar. Both are legitimate targets. GM is embroiled in one of the worst safety scandals in its history as a result of mounting evidence that for years it concealed evidence of an ignition-switch defect that has been tied to a large number of deadly accidents. Caterpillar is under the gun because of a new Senate report accusing it of using accounting gimmicks to avoid more than $2 billion in federal taxes.
At a hearing of the Senate Commerce committee, GM chief executive Mary Barra was confronted with statements such as “The public is very skeptical of GM,” “GM is not forthcoming” and “I think this goes beyond unacceptable. I believe this is criminal.”
The amazing thing is that these statements were coming from both Democrats and Republicans, who differed little in their critique of the automaker. The same can, for the most part, be said about Barra’s only slightly milder interrogation by the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee. Several Republicans sought to score some political points by emphasizing GM’s previous status as a government-controlled corporation, and Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn asked Barra whether the company’s safety lapses were related to the federal bailout (Barra sidestepped the question). Yet they did not press too hard in that direction.
The transcripts of the two GM hearings (available via Nexis) paint a very different picture of Congress from what we usually see these days. As Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont stated in the House hearing: “I have to congratulate General Motors for doing the impossible. You’ve got Republicans and Democrats working together.”
There was a similar seriousness of purpose and absence of simple-minded partisanship in the Senate hearing on Caterpillar. Subcommittee chair Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who has done extensive work to highlight corporate tax dodging, was of course aggressive in grilling company executives about Caterpillar’s funneling of vast amounts of profit through a tiny Swiss subsidiary to take advantage of an artificially low tax rate.
Yet the company did not get much sympathy from the Republican members of the subcommittee either, though Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson did manage to interject a reference to “our uncompetitive tax system.”
The unfortunate truth is that hearings such as these end up being nothing but a charade in which members of Congress pretend for a while to be tough on an egregious case of corporate malfeasance before they go back to doing the bidding of the monied interests.
For example, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who was the one calling GM’s behavior “unacceptable” and “criminal,” sought to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who joined in the critical questioning of Barra, once introduced a bill to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from introducing “job-crushing regulations.”
The problem extends to Democrats as well. Veteran Rep. John Dingell, who was awarded special deference at the House hearing, has long-standing ties to General Motors and the other big U.S. automakers, which have been among his strongest political supporters. His wife Debbie Dingell worked for GM for 30 years. When the 87-year-old Dingell announced earlier this year that he plans to retire from Congress, a GM spokesperson said: “As a champion of the auto industry, John Dingell had no peer.”
If anything, the inclination of members of Congress to do the bidding of business will only increase, now that the Supreme Court has struck down limits on total amounts wealthy individuals can give to candidates, party committees and PACs. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Money in politics may at times seen repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects.”
By once again equating money with speech, Roberts is ensuring that those with the most of it, including giant corporations, are the ones to which Congress, apart from brief periods of public interest grandstanding, will bow.