Rein in the corporations

Big business dominates politics and government, but the people have an opportunity to regain control

August 26, 2010|By Charlie Cooper

"The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself." — FDR

The corporate stranglehold on media, elections and congressional bill-drafting has locked our economy into obsolete and unproductive channels. Corporate influence has even led the Supreme Court to rule this year that corporations are "persons" with "rights." The court's bizarre logic shows just how precarious our democracy and our economy have become.

Since President Barack Obama's jobs summit last December, the national employment picture has worsened slightly: Although the official unemployment rate has dropped from 10 percent to 9.5 percent, the number of discouraged workers has risen so that a slightly smaller fraction of the adult population is working. Job growth is not keeping up with population, and corporate influence is the reason.

Emerging from the economic doldrums will require major investment in schools, water systems, transportation, communications and energy infrastructure to rebuild the foundations of prosperity. In addition, we need to make the banking system safer, stop the bleeding in the housing market, reduce massive waste in the health care sector, and cut unproductive defense spending and other types of corporate welfare. Finally, we must remedy structural imbalances in international trade and the federal budget that are creating unsustainable debt.

Corporate power thwarts nearly every aspect of these reforms and is a more important factor in our woes than those discussed ad nauseam by media pundits and Republican or Democratic partisans.

We live in an era of almost unprecedented concentration of wealth and income. The richest 1 percent controlled 23.5 percent of income in 2007, and corporations are the means by which this elite protects its wealth. When corporations go bankrupt or harm people, wealthy owners are not personally liable.

Historically, government created corporations for the public good — to allow more efficient flows of capital and to serve public purposes. In practice, corporations have used campaign spending, lobbying, media and think tanks to extend their grip on our society to the point where progress is stymied on nearly all fronts:

•Corporate propaganda promulgated in the media hides the enormous debt created by futile wars, contracting fraud, corporate welfare and bank bailouts, instead banging the drum to cut Social Security.

•Unrelenting corporate pressure for "free trade" leads to job exports and the trade imbalance. With wages falling for three decades, corporate flacks twist logic until it's "socialists" who are inciting class warfare.

•Thousands of corporate lobbyists swarmed Washington during the health debate, spending hundreds of millions of dollars. The result was a mandate to funnel trillions of tax dollars and workers' premiums through inefficient, for-profit health insurance firms.

•Corporate influence watered down the financial reform bill and left the "too big to fail" banks even bigger. In 2009, bankers spent $450 million on federal election campaigns.

•Energy corporations contributed nearly $80 million during the 2008 federal election cycle and spent more than $400 million lobbying in 2009. No surprise, then, that clean energy legislation is dead.

Citizens can take back our democracy. Popular movements arose when Teddy Roosevelt busted the trusts and when FDR enacted the New Deal. The "Fight Washington Corruption" pledge was developed from ideas submitted by tens of thousands of Americans. The pledge, endorsed by a coalition of national organizations known as "The Other 98%," is intended to weaken corporate control and make our government work for the 98 percent of us who can't afford lobbyists. The pledge has three main points:

Corporations Are Not People: Amend the Constitution to protect America from unlimited corporate spending on our elections by overturning the Supreme Court's decision giving corporations the same First Amendment rights as people.

Fair Elections Now Act: Provide public financing to candidates who are supported by small donors so they can compete with corporate-backed and self-funded candidates.

Lobbyist Reform Act: End the overwhelming influence of corporate lobbyists by prohibiting switching between corporate lobbying and government service or vice-versa within a five-year period; stopping lobbyists from giving government officials gifts and free travel; and banning secret meetings with lobbyists.

A SurveyUSA poll shows that 67 percent of likely voters would be "more likely to support a candidate for Congress ... who backs a constitutional amendment that would overturn [the] Supreme Court ruling" on corporate election spending. Half a million people have signed on to this pledge to fight Washington corruption, along with 20 current members of Congress — including Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland — and dozens of congressional candidates. Citizens should demand that their congressional representatives sign this pledge and follow through until it is implemented.

It will be very tough to break the grip of corporate political power, but life will be even tougher if we don't.

Charlie Cooper is a member of the Baltimore MoveOn Council. His e-mail is

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