As they read about waste and fraud in the post-hurricane reconstruction–and in Iraq–my constituents in Houston are increasingly demanding stronger corporate accountability and oversight. Like Americans across the political spectrum, they see downsizing and outsourcing, excessive executive pay, the unjust dumping of pensions, accounting fraud, price gouging and other corporate abuses as fundamental threats to our democracy. They know the problem goes much deeper than some of the well-known “bad apples.” They know the government condones the behavior of irresponsible corporations by giving them taxpayer subsidies and lucrative contracts.
It’s time for Congress to demand that contracts and subsidies–federal loans, grants and tax breaks–are tied to responsible business practices. Federal regulations require that government contracts go only to “responsible” companies. But in Iraq, and now on the Gulf Coast, this standard is applied weakly; the awarding of no-bid or limited-bid contracts to corporations with government cronies as lobbyists or executives has taken even more teeth out of the accountability standards.
Congress must increase its oversight. An additional level of scrutiny should be applied to corporations with repeated violations of labor, consumer, environmental, human rights or antitrust laws, and those with multiple violations of contract-related laws (e.g., fraud or bribery). Companies that reincorporate offshore to avoid their fair share of taxes should have their tax and other benefits curtailed. A portion of their tax savings could be channeled into domestic programs that rebuild the refinery areas disabled by Hurricane Katrina.
We should use the federal purse to support a progressive vision of economic progress–one that benefits all Americans equally and creates as many good-paying jobs as possible. To promote that kind of responsibility, Congress should make any companies that do not provide full healthcare benefits to all full-time employees ineligible for federal contracts, loans, foreign aid and other subsidies–period.
As the FEMA disaster and the lobbying scandal have shown us, we also have to improve standards of transparency and accountability. Congress must reject unqualified appointees in public-safety and contract-oversight positions. We must stop the awarding of no-bid contracts to companies with close ties to federal officials. Transparent and well-publicized “pre-bid” conferences, making a special effort to include minority-owned and small businesses and representatives of struggling communities, can also help level the playing field. A pre-bid conference in my Houston district in December helped insure that $1.5 billion in federal contracts was competitively and fairly awarded. Another way to improve transparency is to post federal contracts (and large subcontracts) on a publicly accessible online database, with links to information on the companies’ records of compliance with the standards of accountability that I’m proposing. Let’s allow the public to see where their money is going.
This kind of corporate responsibility program should draw support from across the political spectrum. Corporate accountability is less a question of partisan politics than of fiscal responsibility and national cohesiveness.