Weissman: It's not a pretty picture

Weissman

With the year coming to a close, it’s time to reflect on how things are going. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done together. We won some hugely important victories and built an increasingly powerful movement to take on corporate power.

I’ll be reviewing our achievements—and addressing the just-announced deal to give massive tax cuts to the nation’s richest people—in subsequent messages.

For now, I want to offer a snapshot of corporate power in Washington. It’s not a pretty picture.

Corporate crime and wrongdoing is an everyday fact of life in the United States and around the world. Still, the past year has been remarkable for a series of high-profile, deadly corporate disasters: the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe that killed 11 workers and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the deadly explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch coal mine, and the unintended acceleration of Toyota cars associated with more than 90 deaths.

You might think that these disasters, on their own and together, would impel desperately needed legislative reform. Such was not the case.

Despite blanket TV and newspaper coverage of the corporate wrongdoing in each case, despite deep public outrage, despite public clamor for action to prevent the same things from happening again, Congress has done … exactly nothing.

And the situation is about to get worse.

To be fair, the House of Representatives in each instance took at least some action and might have done more had things looked better in the Senate. But Senate Republicans—sometimes with Democratic allies—acting on behalf of corporate patrons have blocked reform efforts.

  • For much of the summer, the nation was transfixed by video feeds of the BP oil gusher and the damage it wreaked. The House of Representatives responded by passing legislation that would remove the $75 million liability cap for oil damages and bar companies with poor safety and environmental records from receiving new offshore drilling leases. But oil industry-allied senators prevented passage of the bill.
  • The explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 miners and introduced the country to a caricature of a heartless CEO, Massey Energy’s Don Blankenship (who just last week announced his retirement). If ever there was a moment for forward progress on workplace health and safety, it was in the wake of the Massey tragedy. The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety and Health Act would modestly increase the size of fines for endangering workers, make it a felony to cause the death of a worker by knowingly violating safety rules, protect whistleblowers who call attention to workplace hazards, and deter employers from delaying resolution of citations for violations of workplace health and safety rules. But the business lobby has prevented the bill from moving ahead.
  • Revelations of deadly, sudden acceleration in Toyota cars were followed by ever more revelations of problems with Toyota vehicles, major vehicle recalls, public apologies from Toyota, and damning indictments of inaction by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration. Yet thanks to the auto lobby—amazingly, including lobbying from the very General Motors in which the U.S. government (i.e., the public) remains the primary shareholder—Congress has failed to pass the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010, a bill to upgrade safety standards and provide more funding to the resource-starved federal auto safety agency.

There’s no mystery as to the congressional failure. It is simply a reflection of the same corporate power that led to the under-regulation and under-enforcement that made each of the corporate disasters possible.

Yet the ability of corporations and industries to block remedial regulatory efforts at the very moment when they are most vulnerable—due to adverse publicity and an outraged public’s call for action—speaks to the extraordinary political power of Big Business.

That power is certain to be enhanced in the incoming Congress.

Most remarkable of all, with evidence all around of the need for stronger rules to control corporations and protect Americans, the Chamber of Commerce and the business lobby are gearing up for a campaign claiming that the way to jumpstart the economy is by rolling back existing regulations.

Yes, corporations have earned record profits in the past quarter. American businesses raked in profits at an annual rate of $1.659 trillion in the third quarter of 2010!

Yes, it was the failure to regulate Wall Street that cost 8 million jobs and plunged us into the current recession.

In a world ruled by power not logic, however, facts are not enough to defeat corporate propaganda and destructive policy agendas.

Doing that will require overcoming public disgust with Washington’s failures. It will also require moving beyond mere outrage with corporate wrongdoing to organized outrage. As deeply flawed as the policymaking process is, an organized citizenry can still make change for good. It’s not going to come any other way.

I know that this all may sound disheartening. But there’s no point in sugar-coating things.

That said, I am absolutely confident in our ability to turn aside the coming corporate attacks on our health, safety and consumer protections.

For nearly 40 years, Public Citizen has proved again and again that organized people power can defeat concentrated corporate power. Together, I’m certain we’re going to rise to the challenge we face—and not only blunt corporate attacks, but continue our work of bettering our country and deepening our democracy.

Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen.