In Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge was forced to view his own death in order to gain some self-awareness of his life as the epitome of cruelty and selfishness. This Christmas it is unlikely that George W. Bush, Scrooge on the Potomac, will be transformed by any ghostly visits. Indeed, since the November 5 election (in which the Republicans’ narrow majorities in the Senate and House were mirrored by a slim majority of the popular vote), Bush and his cronies seem to believe they have a mandate to outdo themselves in rewarding the corporate class that helped bring them to power.
Yes, this holiday season–even as Bush prepares the nation for war–selfishness is back in style for those at the top of the economic pyramid. Sacrifice and “compassionate conservatism” are out.
It almost calls for resurrecting the phrase “ruling class,” a notion once popular in left-wing circles that claims that the primary function of the highest levels of government is to protect the interests of the very rich. According to this view, big business and the ultra rich influence government at various levels through campaign contributions, personal relationships and ideological affinity. Policy-making becomes not a “mediation” of competing interests but a not so subtle capturing of policy-making institutions by the rich and powerful.
While the Bush Administration is doing all it can to focus our attention on the threat of Iraq and Al Qaeda to the “American way of life,” a close look at the current Republican domestic agenda makes you wonder whether this crude radical theory warrants a closer look. Ironically, while the GOP and much of the media apply the term “class warfare” any time the Democrats and their allies in the labor and environmental movements push for even the most timid reform, it is the Bush Administration that perfected the most blatant version of ruling-class politics.
During its first two years in office–from its $1.35 trillion tax cut (including elimination of the inheritance tax), which primarily benefits the wealthiest 2 percent of the population, to its repeal of Clinton-era “ergonomics” standards, affecting more than 100 million workers, that would have forced companies to alter their work stations, redesign their facilities or change their tools and equipment if employees suffered serious work-related injuries from repetitive motions–the Bushies have acted without shame to serve the interests of their friends in corporate board rooms and the very rich.
But ever since November 5, W. and his cronies have been even more blatant. Virtually every week since the election, the Administration and Republicans in Congress have made or proposed changes in our laws designed to help the rich and powerful while harming the most vulnerable people in society. It is easy to read the newspaper and be appalled by the crude class warfare being waged by the President and his Congressional allies. But the list of daily horrors can be so numbing that one can lose sight of the cumulative impact of the Bush/GOP agenda.
Taken together, it adds up to the most direct assault on working people, the environment and the poor that the country has seen since the presidency of William McKinley a century ago. President Bush has packaged some tidy Christmas gifts this year for his allies and friends, but the vast majority of Americans will receive a lump of coal in their stockings from this Administration. Among them:
§ Cut $300 million from the $1.7 billion federal program that provides subsidies to poor families so they can heat their homes during the winter–a move that leaves 438,000 families in the cold.
§ Added special-interest legislation to the Homeland Security bill that protects Eli Lilly, the giant pharmaceutical firm, from lawsuits over a preservative (thimerosal) in vaccines–which could result in the dismissal of thousands of suits filed by parents who claim that mercury in thimerosal has poisoned their children, causing autism and other neurological problems. John Ashcroft’s Justice Department also asked a federal claims court to seal documents relating to hundreds of claims that thimerosal had caused these problems in children. (George W.’s dad sat on Lilly’s board in the 1970s; White House budget director Mitchell Daniels Jr. is a former Lilly executive; and Bush appointed current Lilly CEO Sidney Taurel to sit on the President’s Homeland Security Advisory Council).
§ Tucked an additional rider into the Homeland Security bill that will allow American companies to win government contracts even if they have moved offshore to evade corporate taxes, while giving the new department a free hand to bypass civil service rules in promoting and firing workers and allowing the President to exempt unionized workers from collective bargaining agreements in the name of “national security.”
§ Gave annual bonuses as large as $25,000 to top political appointees (who typically already earn $115,000 to $140,000), while cutting a pay raise, already passed by both houses of Congress, for 1.8 million federal employees. Bush said it would “interfere with our nation’s ability to pursue the war on terrorism.”
§ Called for as many as 850,000 government jobs–nearly half the federal civilian work force–to be outsourced to private contractors–a move designed to reduce their pay and benefits and eliminate union protections, prompting Bobby Harnage Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, to say that Bush had “declared all-out war on federal employees.”
§ Refused to support an extension of unemployment benefits to about 750,000 American families whose benefits would run out three days after Christmas, until pressured by Congressional Democrats a week after front-page headlines announced that the nation’s unemployment rate had reached 6 percent (an eight-year high) and that each week an additional 95,000 workers will lose their benefits. Bush changed his position in mid-December, but did not indicate whether he would advocate the twenty-six-week extension supported by Democrats or whether he would support extending benefits to jobless workers whose original round of benefits will soon run out.
§ Proposed changes in rules covering employee pensions that will save companies money but threaten the retirement funds of older workers.
§ Repealed a Clinton-era Labor Department rule that allows states to use unemployment insurance money to help people who take a leave from work to have babies or adopt children–a rule that the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) opposed, claiming it was essentially a tax on employers.
§ Proposed additional tax cuts–including making last year’s “temporary” ten-year cut a permanent one–that would primarily benefit the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.
§ Pushed to privatize Social Security by diverting trillions of dollars to stockbrokers, putting the retirement cushion for millions of Americans at risk.
§ Lowered product-labeling standards, allowing food makers to list health claims on labels before they have been scientifically proven. Bush’s new Food and Drug Administration chief Mark McClellan announced in mid-December that the FDA will no longer require claims to be based on “significant scientific agreement,” but instead on the “weight of scientific evidence”–a change that the National Food Processors Association, the trade association of the $500 billion food processing industry, had lobbied for. Bruce Silverglade of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told the Los Angeles Times that the ruling would lead to a “marketplace free-for-all of false and misleading claims.”
§ Loosened EPA air pollution standards for oil refineries and manufacturing plants, which allows them to modernize their facilities without installing pollution-control equipment–a rule change that could actually increase the level of dangerous pollutants emitted into the air. A spokesman for the NAM, which fought for the change, called the new rules “a refreshingly flexible approach to regulation.”
§ Moved to renew thirty-six oil company leases of land off Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties for possible future development, arguing that the California Coastal Commission had no authority to restrict oil drilling in coastal waters. Bush’s move was blocked by a three-judge panel, which ruled in early December that the state has the authority to review potential effects of oil drilling along its coast–a ruling the Bush Administration is likely to appeal.
§ Allowed logging companies to cut down old-growth trees in our nation’s forests under the guise of reducing the risk of forest fires.
§ Rolled back safeguards, opposed by the American Forest and Paper Association, that protect fish and wildlife from logging in 155 national forests with 192 million acres of public land in forty-four states. It removed a Clinton-era regulation requiring comprehensive environmental impact statements whenever the Forest Service revises its forest management plans. The Bush plan, instead, will give each forest manager discretion in deciding whether and how to assess environmental impacts; a move that the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife said would allow “reckless logging by timber-industry profiteers and the destruction of habitat for many species of wildlife.”
§ Reversed a Clinton Administration rule banning snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
§ Approved the drilling of two new natural gas wells in Texas’s Padre Island National Park adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico–which lies along the nation’s longest stretch of undeveloped beach and which is home to eleven endangered species–by BNP Petroleum, a private firm based in Corpus Christi. This is one part of the Bush Administration’s plan to promote drilling at more than fifty new sites on federal land in the lower forty-eight states as well as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Opined the New York Times: “Such is this Administration’s appetite for extractable resources that no area seems safe.”
§ Approved construction by Calpine, a private utility company that contributed to the Bush campaign, of a forty-eight-megawatt geothermal power plant in the Modoc National Forest in California that had been blocked by the Clinton Administration because of concerns by environmental groups and by Indian tribes that consider part of the area sacred. In approving the project, the Bush Administration rejected a recommendation by the Advisory Council on Historical Preservation, a federal agency.
§ Replaced three ruling-class members of his economic team (SEC chairman Harvey Pitt, a lawyer for the major accounting firms; Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, former CEO of Alcoa; and chief economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, former Federal Reserve Board governor) with three other ruling-class members (John Snow, chief executive of CSX Corporation and former head of the powerful Business Roundtable, to the Treasury post; investment banker William Donaldson to the SEC job; and Stephen Friedman, former chairman of investment banking firm Goldman Sachs and current director of unionbuster Wal-Mart, as chief economic adviser).
§ Picked war criminal and liar Henry Kissinger to chair a task force investigating the 9/11 events without requiring him to disclose his consulting firm’s business clients, which include some of the most powerful multinational corporations (reportedly among them Exxon Mobil, ARCO and American Express), which, as the New York Times noted, “depend on maintaining cordial ties with foreign governments and Washington officials”–an obvious conflict of interest. (Under public pressure to choose between making money and public service, Kissinger quickly resigned from the task force.)
§ Went to court to stop Congressional watchdogs (along with the Sierra Club) from forcing Vice President Dick Cheney–former CEO of the scandal-plagued energy services company Halliburton–to turn over documents detailing meetings between oil and gas industry lobbyists and executives (including representatives of Enron) and Cheney’s energy policy task force, which called for expanded oil and gas drilling on public lands and an easing of regulations on the building of nuclear power plants. Helping craft the Bush legal strategy was White House counsel Alberto Gonzales (a possible Bush nominee for the Supreme Court), who, when he served as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, received more than $100,000 in political contributions from the energy industry (including Enron and Enron’s law firm, where he once worked).
Having Bush in the White House and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress makes it difficult to open the paper every morning. But rather than contribute to a sense of resignation and despair, the outrages of the Bush Administration should, like Thomas Paine’s list of grievances against our eighteenth-century colonial masters, rouse us to revolt. Pass this list to your friends, activists and colleagues and let’s get started.
Peter Dreier invites readers’ comments, via e-mail.