It’s hard to imagine a worse time for big business to conduct a full-blown attack on regulatory protections. The country continues to suffer from a deep recession caused in large part by financial deregulation and underenforcement of existing rules. A string of corporate disasters—the BP oil gusher, the Massey coal mine explosion, unintended acceleration in Toyota cars, leaded toys, killer cantaloupes—all tied directly to inadequate regulatory protections, are fresh in the public mind.
For the US Chamber of Commerce, however, the facts shouldn’t get in the way of a stupendous power grab. The Chamber and its allies on Capitol Hill have launched an unprecedented antiregulation campaign, with the goal of blocking new safeguards against corporate wrongdoing and rolling back environmental, health, financial and other regulatory protections.
“The current situation might be characterized as the Contract With America on steroids,” says Gary Bass, former executive director of OMB Watch, a DC-based advocacy group, noting political factors that make this period more dangerous than the mid-1990s. “First, these antiregulatory advocates are using high unemployment as a wedge, claiming that regulations are job killers. Second, antiregulatory forces have developed a powerful message machine.” That message, which is being funded to the tune of millions of dollars, is visible across the street from the White House, where the facade of the Chamber of Commerce is covered with a giant banner that reads: JOBS. This is the overriding public rationale for its agenda: the Chamber and its allies have created an echo chamber to describe public protections as “job-killing,” imposing burdens on the “job creators” (corporations) and preventing them from undertaking new investments. The Chamber has even created an online board game, Thiswaytojobs.com.
In reality, it was insufficient controls on Wall Street that facilitated the financial crash and the Great Recession, which threw 8 million people out of work. Even when they impose modest short-term costs on businesses, health, safety and environmental protections also commonly create jobs by spurring innovation to address new standards. But opponents of public protections discard such evidence, relying instead on deceptive studies written by those committed to bolstering their deregulation crusade. One preposterous report, issued by consultants to the Small Business Administration, twists a dubious index from the World Bank to conclude that the annual US regulatory burden is $1.75 trillion. This cost estimate largely depends on opinion polls of business leaders while ignoring the benefits of regulations altogether. Even the Bush administration found regulatory benefits to be at least twice as great as costs.
Yet intellectually hollow arguments have gained traction. Darrell Issa, chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, set the stage for the GOP obsession with deregulation in December, when he wrote to 150 trade associations and business-linked think tanks requesting a wish list of regulatory safeguards they would like to see blocked or repealed. Trade associations from the American Coke and Coal Chemicals Institute to the American Meat Institute answered the call. House Republicans have introduced at least twenty-eight antiregulatory bills, according to a tally by the Center for Progressive Reform.