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Public Citizen’s Post-Election Analysis:

Nov. 7, 2002

Public Citizen’s Post-Election Analysis:

Handful of Senate Moderates Now Hold Key to Protecting Consumer Interests

Tuesday’s congressional election was a big win for corporate America, which poured hundreds of millions of dollars in campaigns, and a major challenge for the public interest. President Bush and the Republican leaders in the Senate and House have shown a strong allegiance to the wishes of CEOs and corporate lobbyists and a disdain for the interests of average Americans.

Public Citizen prides itself on being a non-partisan organization fighting for the interests of consumers and has worked over many years with bipartisan coalitions on a wide range of issues, such as campaign finance reform, auto safety, patients’ rights, access to generic drugs, fair trade and opposition to corporate welfare. We look forward to continuing to work in a bipartisan manner.

However, we believe that decades of pro-consumer achievements are now at risk with the presidency and both houses of Congress controlled by very conservative leaders. A full agenda of affirmative measures needed to enhance public safety and improve people’s lives is likely to be shelved for the next two years. In addition, it is likely that the president and Republican leaders in Congress will seek to reward their big business campaign contributors by pursuing corporate America’s radical, anti-consumer agenda: fewer consumer remedies, less regulation of business, more pollution, more corporate subsidies, privatization of Social Security and Medicare, and lower taxes for corporations and the rich.

Our only hope for defeating this misguided agenda now lies with the U.S. Senate, which requires 60 votes to overcome a threatened filibuster. Strong Democrats need to act like their forebears and stand up for people against the greed of powerful special interests. Moderate-to-conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate now hold the balance of power and must wield that influence to prevent the further erosion of public interest safeguards and fight for new consumer and investor reforms in the wake of the repeated corporate scandals of the past year.

The following are key issues on which Public Citizen is working and on which these swing members of the Senate can make a huge difference:

  • Tax cuts: Making permanent the Bush tax cut and adding the numerous business tax breaks sought by Bush’s benefactors will only deepen our fiscal problems and limit the government’s ability to initiate new domestic spending initiatives in the future.
  • Prescription drugs: The push to privatize the Medicare program will be front and center. The first step will be giving subsidies to HMOs and insurance companies to provide inadequate drug coverage, rather than have a less expensive, more reliable program delivered through Medicare. One possible bright spot: Bipartisan generic drug legislation, which passed the Senate 78-21 in July, could be enacted if Congress can resist the brand-name drug industry’s army of lobbyists.
  • Tort law changes: Legislation to limit the ability of consumers to bring class actions and to restrict jury awards for medical negligence will be a top priority for the business lobby. Class action legislation is a major goal of the auto companies, the insurance industry, tobacco companies, banks, HMOs and drug companies. Medical malpractice legislation is a top priority of doctors and hospitals but will also let nursing homes, HMOs and the drug industry off the hook for harm to patients. A bill to limit the liability of the asbestos industry will also be a top Republican priority.
  • Energy: Republican leaders are likely to push hard to enact Bush’s retrograde energy plan, developed largely in secret meetings with energy executives and lobbyists. Rather than weaning Americans off fossil fuels, this plan subsidizes old-style, polluting industries and does virtually nothing to promote cleaner, sustainable alternatives. There will also be a move to abolish the Public Utility Holding Company Act, a key consumer-protection law that is supposed to prevent utilities from embarking on the type of Enron-style empire-building that puts electricity consumers and investors at risk.
  • Regulatory rollbacks: A perennial priority of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other corporate interests, omnibus legislation to monkeywrench the rulemaking process within federal agencies through paralysis by analysis may be resurrected after several years in remission. The loss of Democratic control of Senate committees will guarantee that little oversight of federal agencies will occur, so few if any new health, safety and environmental standards will see the light of day during the Bush administration.
  • Campaign finance reform: It took 60 votes to get McCain-Feingold passed, and that was with 50 Democrats in the Senate. In the new Senate, reformers may need 12-13 Republicans to join with all Democrats to reform the presidential public financing system or to pass a “free media” bill, which is opposed by the broadcast lobby. Greater prospects might exist for expanding disclosure requirements for 501(c)(4) groups, which are taking on a larger role in elections as the drug industry and other corporate and wealthy donors funnel millions of dollars to them.

The following members of the 108th Senate will prove either that they are consumers’ worst nightmare – or their best hope:

  • Moderate-conservative Democrats: Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), John Breaux (La.), Thomas Carper (Del.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Zell Miller (Ga.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.)
  • Moderate Republicans: Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Norm Coleman (Minn.), Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Arlen Specter (Pa.)
  • Independent: Jim Jeffords (Vt.)