Scarcely a week goes by without another surge in the ongoing corporate crime wave–a large drug company misleads doctors about heart attack risks in order to sell more pills, an insurance company manipulates its earnings by billions through complicated offshore reinsurance dealings, major banks are under investigation for illegally charging minority borrowers higher loan rates or helping a dictator stash his ill-gotten gains.
These particular stories, unlike many other business crimes and frauds, made the news and sometimes even drew Congressional hearings. But Congress has produced no corrective legislation since the narrow-gauged Sarbanes-Oxley law of 2002, inspired by the Enron scandal. Rather, the major accomplishments of the legislative season so far have been laws from the wish list of the behemoth corporations, who annually shell out tens of millions of dollars for lobbying–a bankruptcy “reform” bill for a credit card industry that reported $30 billion in profits last year, a class-action-lawsuit “reform” bill for the insurance companies and the Chamber of Commerce (now the biggest lobbyist in Washington) and an “energy” bill with generous taxpayer subsidies for oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil, which in 2004 already reported the world’s biggest-ever annual profit for a single company: $25.3 billion.
What can be done? Lots. Those looking for ideas would do well to pick up The People’s Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy, a new book sponsored by Citizen Works, which I founded, whose authors, Lee Drutman and Charlie Cray, propose that we frame a vigorous movement around a number of immediate and long-term shifts of power away from giant corporations to strengthen a citizen-sovereign democracy.
But nothing begins to happen unless the few progressives in Congress get over their resistance to introducing corporate reform legislation, while pressing for a national and Congressional debate on this all-important subject. Back in the 1960s a few archconservative corporatists would put bills into the hopper that would cause raucous laughter among the dominant liberals. No one is laughing anymore; the corporations’ wish list is now Congress’s to-do list.
The lesson is that even bills that do not make it to a public hearing can still form a nucleus of ideas for educating and organizing the assertive citizenry around the country. Such bills commit their sponsoring legislators to speak for and defend the reallocation of power from the corporate state to patients, laborers, consumers, communities and voters. Such bills form the start of an offense against the corporate supremacists and their allies in the House and Senate. I’ve made these arguments for years with Congressional progressives, providing fully drafted legislation requiring no, or little, allocation from public budgets because it shifts power and facilitates civic organization. Yet none of the fifty-five members of the Progressive Caucus to date would introduce even one of these empowerment bills, though they had little disagreement with them on the merits. Consigned to playing defense (and not too robustly at that) for two decades, discouraged, deflated progressives have become accustomed to defensive thinking, which, of course, corrosively feeds on itself.
It would not be difficult to get the ball rolling with the following modest legislative proposals. Given media attention, such prudent positions might even attract some unlikely Republican co-sponsors, along with liberal Democratic supporters.