Corporate Congress

The Corporate Congress is on the move! George II gave them their marching orders, cribbing the rhetoric of Bill Clinton to promote the tax policies of Ronald Reagan. Then House Republicans rushed a 10-year tax bill out of Ways and Means Committee and onto the House floor before the ink was dry, and long before the Budget Committee had any idea how much money the government actually will need next year.

Economists can't even agree on how much the tax cut would cost. The White House says it would cut $1.6 trillion over 10 years. The more progressive Citizens for Tax Justice, using Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation figures, puts the cost in excess of $2.4 trillion.

For that kind of money Congress could go a long way toward extending Medicare to the 44 million working poor who now have no coverage. Or the $774 million tax cut for the wealthiest 1% of Americans would pay for Medicare prescription coverage for 39 million senior citizens. Unfortunately, those groups didn't pony up big bucks in the last election cycle.

Instead the House gave Bush's tax bill a quick read and passed it along party lines March 8. Only 10 Dems crossed over to support it, which didn't qualify for a fig leaf of bipartisanship. Even Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas, leader of the conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats, couldn't stomach this tax cut. In the Senate, Democrats and a few moderate Republicans show signs of at least airing out the issue, but they could use some reinforcements.

There was no such luck when it came to rescinding rules on repetitive stress injuries. Without hearings and with little debate, the "ergonomics" rules, drawn up after years of study by the Clinton administration to prevent as many as 1.6 million injuries annually, were repealed in just two days. Under special rules that limited debate, which removed the filibuster threat, the Senate voted 56-44 on March 6 to repeal the rules. Max Baucus (Mont.), John Breaux (La.), Ernest F. Hollings (S.C.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Blanche L. Lincoln (Ark.) and Zell Miller (Ga.) voted with the Rs and the National Association of Manufacturers. The bill prevents OSHA from issuing a similar rule unless Congress gives them the go-ahead. The following day, the House on a 223-206 vote sent the bill to eager George W. Bush. Sixteen House Democrats sided with the majority and business interests while 13 Repubs sided with the Democrats and labor.

If the tax cut passes, the Republicans would like for the average taxpayer to go out and use the $180 they save as a down payment on a big-ticket purchase that will help the manufacturing sector, which is now located in Singapore. Just don't get overextended, because if you do, the credit card companies will go after your pension and sell your children to Singapore if you try to get shed of your debts, thanks to the new bankruptcy deform bill that is making its way through Congress.

Bankers managed to get the Republican congressional leadership to fast-track the bill to make it harder for Americans to wipe out their debts. The House on March 1 approved the bankruptcy bill with a 306-108 vote that had all Republicans voting "God yes." Democrats were divided, with 93 Dems voting with the banks to punish working people who seek to clear their debts, while 107 Dems plus independent Bernie Sanders voted against the bill.

President Clinton vetoed a similar bill in December, contending that it would hurt working people who fall on hard times, but more than $37 million donated by the credit industry to parties and federal candidates in 1999-2000, according to Public Campaign (see page 19), made a difference in this new Congress. The bankers demanded their due. Don't expect Rev. John Ashcroft's Justice Department to investigate the quid pro quo in this case, though.

Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., failed March 7 in an attempt to temper the bill. The Senate voted 65-34 to reject his amendment that would exempt medical debts from the bankruptcy legislation. Wellstone noted that only 3% of bankruptcies are filed by deadbeats, while 40% of bankruptcy filings in 1999 were caused by catastrophic medical bills. About 500,000 Americans filed for bankruptcy protection that year at least in part because of heavy medical expenses, according to study of bankruptcy filings in 1999 in eight federal judicial districts.

But while the bankruptcy deform won't cut any slack for working people who get saddled with medical bills, a special clause would shield a group of wealthy individuals from millions of dollars in debts owed to the British insurance company Lloyd's of London. Kathleen Day of the Washington Post reported March 10 that the bill would protect about 300 Americans who invested in Lloyd's and were liable for losses.

The Bush administration further showed its contempt for democracy Feb. 28 when the secretary of agriculture set aside the vote of pork producers that was supposed to end forced payments to the National Pork Producers Council. (See Margot McMillen's "Boycott Factory Pork," page 5.)

Ag Secretary Ann Veneman agreed with pork council executives to continue the assessments, settling a lawsuit brought by the council in federal court to overturn what was supposed to be a binding referendum. Some 30,000 pork producers voted 53-47% last fall to end the 15-year-old "checkoff" program, which assesses 45 cents on every $100 of a hog's market price to pay for promotions and research.

Independent hog farmers complained that the $54 million raised annually mainly goes to promote the pork factories that are putting them out of business, and they protested Bush's appearance in Sioux Falls, S.D., on March 8. "George W. Bush told Al Gore to let the votes count," Jim Joens, a pork farmer from Wilmont, Minn., said at a news conference organized by the Campaign For Family Farms, according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. "We're telling Bush to let our votes count."

Perhaps it should be no surprise that an administration whose authority comes from a court decision that set aside a popular vote would have no problems with ignoring the results of yet another vote. Democracy means little to the Bush administration unless the the votes are lined up with them.

Some Democrats are grumbling that their party has no unified "talking point" to respond to the Republicans. No kidding! That's one of the endearing traits of the Democratic Party -- if you get two Democrats together you get three points of view.

There is no question that the Republican Party is a more efficient operation. It is reminiscent of the old Soviet Politburo in its unanimous votes in public -- and its recent actions show it has about the same amount of respect for democracy.

We think the corporate takeover of Congress and the White House qualifies as an excellent talking point, but not many congressional Democrats want to talk about it.

But Democrats had better think of something to talk about. Ralph Nader told Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer that he expects the Greens to run 80 congressional candidates in 2002 -- twice as many as ran last November. "He is not coy about his motives," Polman writes of Nader. "Just as he ran for president to punish Gore and the Democrats for allegedly betraying their progressive traditions and currying favor with global corporate power, now he wants to knock off congressional Democrats who have committed the same sins. As he put it, 'The Democrats are going to have to lose more elections. They didn't get the message last time.'"

Instead of boiling over in their rage at Nader, progressive Democrats should use the Green challenge as leverage to get fellow Ds working on populist issues. A good start would be to pass the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill to regulate "soft money" contributions to the parties. The bill, which was headed for a Senate debate as we went to press, needs to remain clean, without "poison pill" amendments that would cripple union political activity or raise the limits on individual "hard money" contributions. Then, if the Republicans want to wage a class war to enact a tax cut that sends 60% of its benefits to the wealthiest 20% of Americans, the Democrats should enlist to fight for the working people. Those folks have been staying home from the polls in the past few elections because they haven't seen anybody fighting for them in a long time. -- JMC

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