US Rep. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who has for years been one of the Congress' most consistent critic of corporate excess, is worried about the current controversy about corporate governance. Don't get Sanders wrong: He's delighted that revelations about wrongdoing by executives of Enron, Global Crossing, WorldCom and other corporations -- not to mention the whole Martha Stewart insider-trading scandal-- has forced everyone from President Bush to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, to recognize that government must reassert itself as a regulator of business behavior.
The problem, says Sanders, is that, while today's corporations are just as bad as the trusts that needed busting at the start of the last century, Bush is no Teddy Roosevelt and Daschle is no William Jennings Bryan. Instead of real reform, Republican and Democratic leaders are proposing half-steps aimed at requiring accountants to produce better balance sheets. While Democrats and Republicans frequently stop Sanders in the halls of Congress these days to tell him they should have listened to his complaints about corporate misdeeds, most refuse to recognize that the corporate crisis is about a lot more than accounting.
"The American people have a much better understanding that members of the Bush administration or members of Congress that this is not just about a few bad rules or a few bad apples. This is about how corporations do business in America today, and about what members of Congress who take immense amounts of corporate money to finance their campaigns allow those corporations to get away with," says Sanders. "Sure, corporations and their accountants have taken advantage of loopholes and lax regulations to inflate their earnings statements, and sure they have used their campaign contributions to make sure that the loopholes stay open and that the regulators let them get away with murder. But if you close the loopholes and increase the level of oversight, that is not going to usher in a new era of corporate responsibility. If all that comes out of this are a few accounting reforms -- necessary as they may be -- most Americans are going to say, rightly, that the corporations were let off the hook again."
Sanders is frustrated with the refusal of top Congressional Democrats to show even the level of leadership that some Republicans have displayed. It is notable that, while Daschle has pulled the brakes on some reform proposals, Arizona Senator John McCain is busy denouncing "crony capitalism," calling for the resignation of Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitt, and saying, "A range of proposals to reform corporate governance and government oversight are now before Congress. Others will be considered in the weeks ahead. Many of their provisions are commendable. Some fall short of doing all that is necessary."
Sanders is not the only House member expressing frustration over the caution of some Democratic leaders. "The good news is that there is a ripening suspicion about corporate ties to the Bush administration. There is a growing sense that when George W. Bush proposes to allow more arsenic in the drinking water, it may have something to do with his relationship with his corporate campaign contributors. The field is fertile to really make a difference on a whole host of issues," says US Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. "The bad news is that not everyone on our side recognizes what a remarkable opening has been created in the past few weeks."
Sanders argues that the opening for reform could be as wide as members of Congress are willing to make it. Yes, the Vermont socialist says, corporations have used their lobbying muscle to warp accounting and corporate governance regulations. But if Democrats think those are the only places where corporations have overstepped their boundaries, they are destined to squander an opportunity to open a great debate about corporate influence over government. "These (corporate executives and their representatives) are the same people who lobbied against having corporations pay their fair share of taxes. These are the same people who have done everything in their power to reshape regulations so they can steal the money from employee pension plans. These are the same people who pressure Congress to grant them the ‘freedom' to close factories in America, send our jobs to China and then ship back products made using prison labor," says Sanders.
Democratic strategists say they want to make corporate abuses an issue in this fall's election. But that won't happen if the debate remains focused on accounting rules. "We have to broaden the debate," says Sanders. "We have to tie the debate into the trade issue. We have to tie the debate into the estate tax issue. We have to tie the debate into pension issues. What we should be saying is that this whole debate is about a culture of corporate greed that has wrecked our communities, robbed our retirees and lowered the standards for ethical business behavior to a level that disgusts average Americans."