Public Citizen President Robert Weissman on …

Sept. 8, 2009

Public Citizen President Robert Weissman on …

Corporate influence over national policy

“There is a common link between the policy failure to impose meaningful restraints on Wall Street, drug companies marketing unsafe drugs, a deeply flawed climate bill, a dysfunctional health insurance system that results in 18,000 preventable deaths a year, cable companies’ ability to impose onerous contractual terms, and a global trading system that undermines our government’s authority to adopt consumer, environmental and worker protections. That common link is excessive and unchecked corporate power. Public Citizen has always been a leader not only in addressing issues directly related to health, safety and environmental protection, but also in working directly to curb excessive corporate power.

“I hope to help us continue to challenge – and break down – the false boundaries corporations have successfully imposed on policy debates. In healthcare, the Obama administration and congressional leaders have refused to consider the only approach – a Medicare-for-All, single-payer system – that can cure the system’s dual ills: runaway costs and denial of coverage to tens of millions. In climate, the legislation that has passed the House of Representatives utterly fails to produce the economic transformation that the science tells us we must undergo to avert climate catastrophe. In financial regulation, the banks have defeated the most important legislative proposals to mitigate the mortgage epidemic – leading Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin to say the banks ‘own the place.’ The banks have announced they intend to “kill” the most important regulatory proposal from the Obama administration – a proposed new financial consumer protection agency. Our job at Public Citizen is to refuse to let corporations impose these kinds of limits on policymaking.”

Climate change

“Climate change is the greatest threat to the well-being of the planet and its people. It is going to be the defining issue of the next 50 years – and the world is right now on a terribly worrisome trajectory.

“It is good to have an administration that acknowledges the reality of climate change and wants to address it, but the proposals on the table are woefully inadequate. King Coal, Big Oil and the utilities, among other industrial and agribusiness interests, have joined together to, so far, thwart an appropriate policy response.

“There is great opportunity in responding to the crisis, with more attention to the vibrancy of local communities, the creation of millions and millions of new jobs, greater equity, and a sense of shared national and global mission.. New efficiency and energy technologies can be the engine for an economy that has lost its drivers – which, for this decade, were the financial sector and housing. Decentralized generation and distribution offer the possibility for more independent and livable communities.

“But to respond to the crisis will require first recognizing it for what it is – not just another in the list of important issues, but an existential threat to the planet. We – all of us together, with government in the lead – have to mobilize resources and organizational might commensurate with the scale of the threat. In the United States, we have to mobilize the way the country did for World War II.

“Public Citizen brings a long history of working on climate-related policies like fuel economy standards, subsidies for fossil fuels, stopping new coal plant construction, and promoting the development of solar and renewable energy technologies. We are going to build on that tradition and leverage our collective expertise in matters from global trade to administrative law. We are going to engage our members and allies so that together we build a strong citizen movement to overcome the fossil fuel lobby and avert climate catastrophe.”

The financial crisis

“Through its avarice and recklessness, Wall Street has sunk us into the worst recession of the past 70 years – and, not so incidentally, destroyed many of its leading firms. Those that survive are dependent on the trillions of dollars in public funds used to bail out Wall Street and the big banks.

“Yet rather than express shame and apologize, these institutions continue to dominate the policymaking debate. Senator Durbin says the banks “own the place,” in the context of their defeat of mortgage cramdown legislation – a modest measure to address foreclosures that would very likely benefit banks but would contravene their ideological opposition to adjusting loan principle. The banking industry openly announces its plans to ‘kill’  the most significant Obama administration financial regulatory proposal – to create a new financial consumer protection agency.

“We need a smaller financial sector. We need to shrink the size of the giant banks, impose meaningful restraints on compensation for executives and highly paid employees (because pay packages incentivized reckless risk-taking), impose a financial transaction tax, empower consumers, and offer much more institutional support for community development banks and credit unions.”
Health care reform

“The richest country in the world spends far more than other wealthy nations on healthcare (at least 50 percent more than every country except Luxembourg) but sports middling health indicators. It permits 45 million people to live without health insurance, denying them access to preventative and routine care, resulting in the death of 18,000 people a year. It tolerates private health insurance companies making life-and-death rationing decisions for millions of people with only minimal accountability. It lets private health insurers refuse to take sick people as customers and engage in endless manipulations to discard its customers if they do become sick. It features a system in which medical bills and illness contribute to almost two out of three personal bankruptcies – even though three-quarters of these bankrupt people had insurance when they became sick.

“There is a cure all for these ills. It is a Medicare-for-All, single-payer system, in which everyone is guaranteed access to healthcare as a matter of right and the government pays medical bills (thus operating as the “single payer”).

“Unfortunately, instead of advocating for this approach – which President Obama supported as a state senator, and which he still says would be superior if the system was being designed from scratch – the Obama administration has sought to reach an accommodation with the insurance industry, hospitals and Big Pharma.”

Money in politics/public financing of elections

“We now have a president eager to take on the big issues – healthcare, climate change, financial regulatory reform. But in each case, things are going very wrong. That’s because of excessive corporate power in general, and the distorting power of corporate money in politics in particular. Indeed, the extraordinarily serious problems with health care, climate and the financial system are traceable in large part to money in politics. Wall Street invested more than $5 billion in campaign contributions and lobbying in the decade preceding the financial meltdown, for example. That money bought them a series of deregulatory moves that paved the way for the financial meltdown. Now, with it no longer possible to deny that these problems need addressing, corporate money is working – all too successfully – to prevent meaningful remedies.

“With the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court appears poised to make a bad situation much worse. The court may permit corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money from the company treasury to support electoral candidates. Such a decision will unleash a tsunami of corporate money – probably the best investment a business can make – to slant elections in favor of corporate-friendly candidates. That money not only will affect the outcome of races, it will further lead candidates to engage in self-censorship when they risk offending powerful business interests.

“Running effective campaigns that engage voters costs money. But it is equally obvious that elections funded by private money give disproportionate influence to the wealthy. The simple solution is to treat elections as a public good (we do, after all, still have public financing of the electoral apparatus itself) and to provide public financing for candidates.”

Pending free trade agreements

“Designed by the world’s largest corporations, our global trading system benefits those who designed it. Trading rules, including those in existing and pending free trade agreements, strip power away from democratically elected governments. Trade rules prevent our federal government and our states (as well as other governments) from protecting consumers and the environment. They interfere with efforts to promote community development and the preservation of good-paying jobs. They give pharmaceutical companies the right to price gouge the world’s poor, and help agribusiness eliminate family farms.

“When it comes to trade, we need a redirection. We need trade rules that enhance democracy and ensure that trade advances rather than undermines the things we want from an economy: safe products, good-paying jobs and decent livelihoods, vibrant communities and a healthy planet.

“The Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment (TRADE) Act offers us a way to achieve this redirection. There is overwhelming public support for the course correction that the TRADE Act would achieve; the only question is whether the public can be organized to overcome the entrenched interests supporting the trade status quo.”

The state of the regulatory system

“Whether it comes to health and safety, environmental protection or maintaining a working financial system that serves all people, our regulatory system is broken. It is the victim of more than two decades of deregulatory ideology, misguided court decisions, inappropriate budget cutbacks, inappropriate reliance on partnership with industry, distorted cost-benefit analyses and simple corporate capture.

“We need more funding for regulatory agencies – which more than pays for itself in injuries and illness prevented, lives saved and environmental space preserved. We need to validate the work of food inspectors and drug regulators who help keep us safe. We need to ensure regulatory independence, and empower and direct regulatory agencies to prioritize their health, safety and related missions over accommodating the industries they regulate. We need to make sure the courts remain available for victims of corporate violence, irrespective of whether their actions were blessed by regulators. And we need to organize and create mechanisms so citizens can band together to hold regulators (and the corporations they regulate) accountable.”

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