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But will the debate over the influence of mega-corporations continue to animate political debate?

This article was first published in New Hampshire Business Review.

Passage last month of a bill to keep the federal government running also extended the life of the Export-Import Bank, a controversial federal agency, until June 2015. The measure may also extend the life of an inside-the-GOP debate over “corporate cronyism” and mega-corporations that succeed in business due more to their political connections than their entrepreneurial prowess. Such debate is welcome.

In case you haven’t paid attention to discussions going on among conservative members of Congress and in the conference rooms at conservative think-tanks, right-wingers have taken to denouncing the cozy ties between big government and big business. The Ex-Im Bank, which provides loan guarantees to U.S. corporations peddling their goods and services in other countries, may provide the political context, but the principles reach far into other sectors of the economy and federal policy.

Speaking about the Export Import Bank and the “conservative reform agenda” in April at the Heritage Foundation, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a possible Republican

2014 04 12 mike lee @ freedom summit

Senator Mike Lee at the “Freedom Summit” in Manchester

presidential candidate, denounced “America’s crisis of crony capitalism, corporate welfare and political privilege: In which government twists public policy to unfairly benefit favored special interests at the expense of everyone else.”

This is the stuff of fire-breathing populism, not what we expect to hear at Heritage.

But Senator Lee continued: “The more power government amasses, the more privileges are bestowed on the government’s friends, the more businesses invest in influence instead of innovation, the more advantages accrue to the biggest special interests with the most to spend on politics and the most to lose from fair competition.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, another conservative Republican considering a run for president, has made similar statements. “Big companies may not like big government, but they can afford to deal with it,” he said at a GOP fundraiser in New Hampshire.

The senators remind us of President Eisenhower warning the American people to “guard against the unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial-complex.”

Take Boeing, the aerospace company that ranks second among Pentagon contractors and has also attracted the ire of Ex-Im Bank critics.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Boeing’s hangar houses 85 lobbyists. Its annual tab for lobbying runs to about $15 million a year, and more than $9 million already in 2014.

That amount may be understated. Political scientists believe actual lobbying expenses are three times the amount disclosed on official forms

There’s more to cronyism than money spent on lobbyists. There’s the issue of the “revolving door,” people who go from elected office and jobs on Capitol Hill or the Pentagon to more lucrative careers at lobbying firms. Boeing’s lobbyists include four former members of Congress plus a firm founded by former House Speaker Richard Gephardt. In Eisenhower’s terms, Boeing’s influence is definitely “sought.”

Big companies also grease the wheels through campaign contributions, especially to incumbent members of Congress in leadership roles.

CQ Roll Call reported last month that “four of the top five candidates for the chairmanships of the House Armed Services and Intelligence panels have raised considerably more money this election cycle than they did at a similar point in 2012. The same four have also raised much more money from the defense industry than before – in some cases, more than doubling their takes.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, is a contender for the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee. According to CQ Roll Call, Thornberry has more than doubled his take from defense firms compared to the previous election cycle. Number five on Thornberry’s campaign committee donor list is Boeing.

The federal government and the Export-Import Bank have avoided shutdown for the time being. But the notion that mega-corporations have too much influence over federal policy has found new champions and should outlast the Ex-Im debate. Perhaps even the Democrats will join in.

Governing Under the Influence, #GUI

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Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Edsall assembles an impressive array of facts that illuminate the realities of wealth inequality in America.  

Citing Federal Reserve figures, Edsall reports that household net worth, corporate profits, and the value of real estate have been going up at an impressive pace.  If you think that sounds like evidence of recovery you’d be mistaken, at least if you equate “recovery” with economic conditions that are improving for most workers.   

“The September Federal Reserve Bulletin graphically demonstrates how wealth gains since 1989 have gone to the top 3 percent of the income distribution,” he writes.  “The next 7 percent has stayed even, while the bottom 90 percent has experienced a steady decline in its share.”

It’s not just wealthy individuals getting wealthier; it’s also the corporations they own and run.    Citing statistics from Goldman Sachs, Edsall says corporate profits rose five times faster than wages last year.  And he quotes an article from Business Insider that stated,

“America’s companies and company owners — the small group of Americans who own and control America’s corporations — are hogging a record percentage of the country’s wealth for themselves.”

Edsall asks, “Why don’t we have redistributive mechanisms in place to deploy the trillions of dollars in new wealth our economy has created to shore up the standard of living of low- and moderate-income workers, to restore financial stability to Medicare and Social Security, to improve educational resources and to institute broader and more reliable forms of social insurance?”

It’s the right question. 

For answers he turns to a bunch of economists, who provide data about tax rates, labor force participation, the declining growth of well-paying jobs, globalization, and the reduction of labor’s share of profit relative to capital in a time of rising productivity.  

My answer is a bit more straightforward:  America’s companies and company owners — the small group of Americans who own and control America’s corporations — are hogging the political system.  This is nothing new, but in the legal environment created by recent Supreme Court decisions (Citizens United and McCutcheon in particular) it is becoming easier for corporate interests to wage class war and win.  Simply put, the people who make the laws and set the policies have their receptors tuned to the frequency where the corporations are broadcasting. 

Edsall notes survey data that reveal corporations are not so popular in the USA and other so-called “advanced countries.”   He asks if the legitimacy of free market capitalism in America is facing fundamental challenges.

My gut response is to say “I hope so.”  But the dynamics described by all those economists are not the workings of “the invisible hand.”  The market is operating under a set of rules established by those who already have more than their fair share of power, wealth, and privilege.  The legitimacy of our corporate-directed political system must be challenged as well.

#GUI

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Democracy Movement Takes a Message to Senator Ayotte

NASHUA, NH — The “Democracy for All Amendment” failed on a procedural vote today in the US Senate, but not before a dozen New Hampshire activists made one more attempt to get Senator Kelly Ayotte to support overturning the US Supreme P9110119Court’s “Citizens United” decision.

“Corporations are not people.  They should not control our political process,” Representative Sylvia Gale of Nashua said to the group assembled at City Hall Plaza at 9 am this morning.

The group was small, but they are part of a large movement of people concerned that “corporate people” and the wealthiest Americans have the legal ability to drown out competing voices in the political process.

“I don’t have a lot of money and I want my voice to be heard,” explained Fred Robinson, who drove to Nashua from Goffstown to participate.   

“Democracy should work for people,” offered Dr. Thabile Mnisi-Misibi, an ANC member visiting from South Africa.

The contingent of 13 people walked with signs and chants througP9110155h the downtown district to the Senator’s office.  There, they delivered a petition with 12,000 New Hampshire names calling on Senator Ayotte to support the constitutional change.   

“This is an issue for all of New Hampshire, and Senator Ayotte needs to get involved,” said Dan Weeks of the Coalition for Open Democracy, the group which led the organizing of today’s action.

Weeks handed the petitions and supporting material to Simon Thomson, an aide to Senator Ayotte, who met the group on the sidewalk outside her office.

Dan Weeks presenting petitions to Simon Thomson.

A similar action took place last week at Senator Ayotte’s Portsmouth office.

Ayotte voted Monday for a motion that allowed consideration of the amendment to go forward, but today joined her GOP colleagues voting against ending debate, thereby blocking the measure from an up or down vote on its merits.   New Hampshire’s other Senator, Jeanne Shaheen, was a co-sponsor of the amendment proposal.

The notion that the Supreme Court believes corporations are people, that money is speech, and that therefore corporations can spend without limits to affect election campaigns has provoked a reaction expressed through petitions, resolutions, and proposals for constitutional change.  SJ Resolution 19, the proposal defeated today in the P9110141US Senate, is just one of a couple dozen advanced by members of Congress in response to Citizens United.  Some groups, such as Move To Amend, have made it clear they think it doesn’t go far enough to reverse corporate constitutional rights.  But it was the only proposal likely to get considered in the foreseeable future, so many groups calling for constitutional change were on board. 

Writing in his blog at The Nation earlier this week, John Nichols said:

The amendment that is being considered is a consequential, if relatively constrained, proposal, which focuses on core money in political concerns but which does not go as far as many Americans would like when it comes to establishing that money is not speech, corporations are not people and elections should not be up for sale to the highest bidder.

Yet it is difficult to underestimate the importance of the debate that will unfold this week. The debate signals that a grassroots movement has established the rational response to a political crisis created by US Supreme Court rulings (including, but certainly not exclusively, the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions) that have opened the floodgates for domination of political debates by billionaire campaign donors and corporate cash.

No one expected the amendment to get the two-thirds vote it would need to pass or get a vote at all in John Boehner’s House of Representatives.   But the fact that any vote took place is evidence of a significant expression oP9110133f public sentiment that the“Citizens United” decision did serious damage to fundamental issues.  The questions now are whether the movement will grow or fizzle, and whether the pro-amendment groups will intensify their demands for more aggressive language or head down the familiar road of further compromise.  A decision to water down the language in hopes of gaining votes at this point would be a huge mistake.

“Constitutional amendments become viable when support for them grows so overwhelming that traditional partisan and ideological boundaries are broken,” wrote Nichols, who will speak at an AFSC dinner in Concord on September 27.  “When this happens, the divide becomes less a matter of Republican versus Democrat or left versus right and more a matter of a broken present versus a functional future.”

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2014 04 12 mike lee @ freedom summit

Senator Mike Lee at the Freedom Summit, Manchester, April 12, 2014

If you think critique of Big Business is a left-wing phenomenon then think again.

Two Senators who are testing the waters for Presidential runs, and a prominent Republican Representative, have been talking about “corporate cronyism” and “crony capitalism” in recent presentations at The Heritage Foundation of all places.

Speaking at the conservative “think tank” on April 30, Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) issued a blast at “America’s growing crisis of crony capitalism, corporate welfare, and policy privilege.”

“The free enterprise system is based on the fundamental equality of opportunity for all—to succeed and to fail—on a level playing field, but cronyism cements the status of the politically well-connected, making it easier for favored special interests to succeed and harder for their competitors to get a fair shot. As a result, honest small business owners, would-be employees, and investors are unfairly kept on the sidelines of a rigged game,” Senator Lee went on.

Senator Lee has made at least one visit to New Hampshire, site of the first-in-the-nation Presidential Primary.  At Americans for the Prosperous’ “Freedom Summit” in April he gave a rather tepid speech in which he said Republicans “have to stop talking like Ronald Reagan and start acting like him.”  

His Heritage appearance was more interesting:

Cronyist policies come in many shapes and sizes—from subsidies and loan guarantees to tax loopholes and protective regulations—but they all work the same way: The elite leaders of big government, big business, and big special interests collude to help each other climb to the highest rungs of success, and then pull up the ladder behind them.

Senator Lee is not the only one talking like that.

In an appearance before the Rockingham County Republicans in New Castle, New Hampshire on May 9, Senator Marco Rubio issued his own blast at greedy capitalists.

As reported by Fox News Latino the Cuban-American Senator from Florida said “Big companies may not like big government, but they can afford to deal with it. They can hire the best lobbyist in Washington to help write those regulations. They can hire the best lawyers in America to find loopholes in those regulations. But if you’re starting a new business out of the spare bedroom in your home you can’t do that.”

Like Lee and a host of others, Senator Rubio is a contender for the GOP Presidential nomination. 

“Subsidies, tax preferences, and political influence”

Rep. Hensarling (R-Texas), chair of the House Financial Services Committee, was another recent visitor to Heritage, where he said “The Main Street competitive economy relies upon hard work, creativity, perseverance and ‘can do’ optimism to create wealth,” while “the Washington insider economy, in contrast, relies on earmarks, regulatory barriers to entry, subsidies, tax preferences, and political influence.”

Rep. Hensarling devoted much of his Heritage speech to criticism of the Export-Import Bank as the epitome of the “Washington insider economy.”

Created in 1934 to boost the U.S. economy by financing foreign purchases of U.S.-made goods, the Ex-Im Bank has earned its place as a focus of criticism.  For example, as a long article in a recent issue of The Nation describes, the Ex-Im Bank was behind the financing of a controversial ExxonMobil mining project in New Guinea, where a landslide cascaded 2 million tons of rocks and mud onto a village two years ago, killing at least 27 people.  The limestone quarry, where the fatal landslide originated, was part of a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project financed by a $3 billion Ex-Im Bank loan.

Ian T. Shearn writes:

This massive government loan to the ExxonMobil-led project was issued despite sharp rhetoric from the Obama administration on climate change. Indeed, the loan was approved by the administration just four days before the president delivered his address to the December 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. “As the world’s largest economy and the world’s second-largest emitter, America bears our share of responsibility in addressing climate change,” Obama said then. “That is why we have renewed our leadership within international climate negotiations, and worked with other nations to phase out fossil-fuel subsidies.”

The PNG LNG loan was hardly the only exception to the president’s stated position. Since Obama took office, the Export-Import Bank has invested more than $27 billion in fossil-fuel endeavors, while lending less than $2 billion to clean-energy projects.

As the Presidential campaign heats up, alongside a growing movement of citizens concerned about the floods of corporate cash washing through the election system, it will be interesting to see whether populist attacks on Big Business find a secure home in the GOP.   Maybe we’ll even see some Republican Senators at the NH Rebellion march July 5.

 

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laconia 1-18-14 004

After an hour of circling Laconia and Meredith I intercepted the NH Rebellion walkers on Parade Road in the northern reaches of Laconia at about noon today.  There were several dozen of them, perhaps half of whom had set out from Dixville Notch a week ago.  Others joined later, or were like me just there for the day. 

Walking in the spirit of Doris “Granny D” Haddock, who was born in Laconia in  1910, the rebels aim to oust corruption from American politics by sparking an irresistible demand for reform of our money-driven election process.

The idea of the NH Rebellion was hatched by Larry Lessig, author of Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It.  Speaking at a late lunchtime rally at Laconia’s Vintage Cafe, he said polls indicate 96% of Americans believe we neelaconia 1-18-14 045d to reduce the influence of money in politics.  “There is no other issue in  America that unites us like this,” said Lessig,

One rebel told me he likes the fact that the effort speaks to the concerns of liberals and conservatives.  When I asked if he had met any conservatives on the walk, he could think of one.  There’s still time.

The aim of the Rebellion is to get New Hampshire voters to ask presidential candidates, “How are you going to end the system of corruption in Washington?”

Today’s turnout was largely people from other states.  I met people from New York, California, Massachusetts, and Colorado.

Vermonter Ben Cohen came with his dog, Riley, to walk for the day alaconia 1-18-14 019nd support the movement to get money out of politics.  “It’s all about corporations using unlimited amounts of money to buy politicians,” he said to the packed crowd at the Vintage Cafe.  It’s entirely feasible, Cohen believes, for a mobilized New Hampshire electorate to “create a situation where the presidential candidates have to address the issue.” 

Yes, there were a few Granite Staters among the walkers and supporters. Dick Pollock, from Conway, called the effort the most important thing he’s done.  That’s why he’s taking two weeks off from his normal activities to drive a support van.  And as the walk heads south through Concord and Manchester to its conclusion Friday in Nashua, the walkers expect to sign up more New Hampshire residents.  Lessig thinks 50,000 is a good goal by Primary Day, probably sometime in February 2016.

For more information on the walk and related events, or to enlist in the Rebellion, visit www.nhrebellion.org

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Are Chemical and Fertilizer Companies Secret Terror Cells?

I admit I was pretty much glued to the internet and the radio for much of the day Friday as police closed in on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s hiding place, which turned out to be down the block from the home of close friends.  Given how close we live to Boston, the many New Hampshire runners participated in the Boston Marathon, and the fact that local  police SWAT teams joined to effort that led to Tsarnaev’s apprehension, it’s no surprise that my local newspaper had 3 front-page stories today about the aftermath of the Marathon bombing.

As I listen to two NPR Sunday morning news shows and hourly headlines providing ongoing news of the Boston events, what has me wondering is the contrast between overall coverage of the Marathon bombers and the low level of attention to the recent explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

The April 15 Marathon bombing killed three people and sent 183 others, many with terrible injuries, to local hospitals.  One law enforcement officer and one of the alleged bombers met violent deaths a few days later. 

The West Fertilizer Company’s facility in West, Texas caught fire and exploded on April 17.  There are 14 confirmed fatalities, including 10 volunteer firefighters, and more than 200 injured.  Dozens of homes, including a 50-unit apartment building, were destroyed, and dozens more homes were damaged.  My local paper today carries a 3-paragraph story on page two, reporting that Texas officials have said it is “safe, safe, and safe” for local residents to return home to the neighborhood they evacuated 3 days earlier.

All the lives lost are of immeasurable value; no mathematical formula can compare the impact of the two disasters. But they seem to be on the same scale in terms of casualties, heroism, and systemic dynamics that seethe underneath and make repeat disasters hard to predict but likely to occur. 

The perpetrators of the Marathon bombing are criminals and may well be terrorists.  What of the Adair Grain Company, owner of the West fertilizer distribution center?

According to the Dallas Morning News, “West Fertilizer Co. reported having as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on hand in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.” Yet according to the Dallas daily, the company maintained the plant’s operation posed no safety risk in documents filed with the EPA. 

An overview of the fertilizer industry published in a Washington Post blog stated, “The West, Texas plant stored and blended anhydrous ammonia — a pungent gas with suffocating fumes used as a fertilizer. It also contained as much as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can explode if mixed with fuel and ignited.”  Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols used ammonium nitrate to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. 

But the company checked off “no” under fire or explosive risks in its EPA report.  “The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one,”  according to the Dallas paper.

Will the owners and mangers of Adair Grain be held accountable?  “Within hours of the explosion, officials of the company and its insurance carriers hired a handful of law firms to prepare for a wave of litigation,” reported the Dallas Morning News.  The company could face hundreds of millions in damages, but can they be charged with murder? 

What of federal workplace safety officials, who have performed only six fertilizer plant inspections — not including West — in the past five years?  Are they responsible? 

What of Congress, which has lmited  OSHA’s budget and enforcement powers so much the agency can’t do its job?  Is Congress an accomplice to murder? 

A 2008 survey by the Dallas Morning News identified 23 dangerous facilities located within a quarter mile of residential neighborhoods just in Dallas County.  “Residents of those neighborhoods tend to be lower-income, Hispanic and living in apartments or mobile homes,” the article said.   

“Dallas planning studies and zoning cases dating back nearly 65 years, reviewed by The News, almost never mention the danger of chemicals at a nearby plant or warehouse,” the article continued.  “Most of the sites aren’t required to get a special permit to operate because city law covers only companies that manufacture chemicals. It doesn’t include those that store, sell or use the chemicals to make other products.”

“So the plants are hidden hazards. There are often no smokestacks with telltale clouds. And the most dangerous chemicals have household names – chlorine, which keeps water clean, and ammonia, which keeps food cold.” 

According to the Washington Post, there are more than 6000 retail fertilizer facilities around the country.  No doubt many neighbors are unaware of the danger they face in the event of an accident.  Are corporations which conceal dangers from the public culpable? 

“The need for a stronger Occupational Safety and Health Act was demonstrated this week with the tragic explosion at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH), a labor-based education and advocacy group. 

“When the plant was last inspected by OSHA all the way back in 1985, it was fined only $30 for a serious violation for storage of anhydrous ammonia,” O’Connor said.

COSH is backing the Protecting America’s Workers Act, which would strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Act and make felony charges possible when repeated and willful violations result in a worker’s death or serious injury.

The West fire and explosion make it obvious that it’s not only workers who are at risk.  O’Connor says “We need a system in which facilities that are inherently dangerous are required to develop detailed disaster prevention plans before they’re allowed to operate.”  That would be a good start.

National COSH is organizing Workers Memorial Week events around the country this week.  The New Hampshire affiliate will hold its Workers Memorial Day event in Hooksett on Thursday, April 25.  By coincidence, that’s the same day the fourteen West, Texas victims will be memorialized at a service at Baylor University.  I haven’t heard if Barack Obama will be attending.  

[Update: President Obama did attend the memorial service, at which he praised West, Texas for its community spirit and the courage of its volunteer firefighters.  He did not address the cause of the explosion.  Click here for his comments.]

 

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stop now brattleboro march 22

Hundreds arrested at Entergy offices in VT, LA, NY

One difference between a person and a corporation is that a corporate person can be in many places at once.  To occupy space in, say, three states, it takes at least three natural persons.  There were many times that protesting today outside the offices of Entergy Corporation, the rogue corporation that operates the Vermont Yankee nuclear station in Vernon, Vermont.

Had the plant’s operators been obeying state law, the plant would have ceased operation today.

Upwards of 1000 people took that message to the company’s Brattleboro officebrattleboro march 22 028 this afternoon.  More than 100 of them were arrested and charged with unlawful trespass for attempting to deliver their message directly to the company.

Meanwhile, seven activists with roots in the New England anti-nuclear movement were arrested for criminal trespass inside Entergy’s corporate headquarters in New Orleans.  They were Renny Cushing, Lynn Chong, Ben Chichester, Kendra Ulrich, Jeff Brummer, Nelia Sargent, and Paul Gunter.  They were released after six hours.

Five others were arrested at Energy’s office in White Plains, NY, near the aging Indian Point reactor.

The demonstration outside the Entergy Brattleboro office, organized by the SAGE brattleboro march 22 018 Alliance, followed a rally on the Brattleboro Common and a 3.5 mile march up Putney Road and Old Ferry Road .  Organizers made a deliberate decision to demonstrate there, rather than at the reactor, to keep the attention on the Entergy Corporation.

“We come peacefully to Entergy Headquarters today with this message: your time is up,” began the SAGE Alliance’s statement about the demonstration. 

Those who participated in civil disobedience were organized into affinity groups.  SAGE also asked everyone to abide by a “nonviolent code of conduct” that articulated the discipline they intended for the action, for example, “we will not harm anyone, and we will not retaliate in reaction to violence.”

Spirits were high throughout the Brattleboro action, and the potential of solar energy was much in evidence.  

New Phase of Resistance

Entergy’s 40-year license expired yesterday.  Although it received a 20-year extension (the day after the Fukushima meltdown began) from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the State of Vermont insists the New Orleans corporation also needs a Certificate of Public Good from the state and permission of the legislature in order to keep operating.  The dispute is ongoing in federal court.

No Nukes activists, who call attention to VT Yankee’s history of radiation leaks and tfrances brattleboro march 22 echnical failures, aren’t waiting for the court.  Frances Crowe, a 93-year old activist who was among the first arrested (and the first to be released) told a reporter, “As I was walking down, all I could think of was Fukushima and the suffering of all the people, and I don’t want that to happen to New England.”

Vermont’s Governor, Peter Shumlin, was quoted saying, “I am very supportive of the peaceful protesters gathered today in Brattleboro to express their — and my — frustration that this aging plant remains open after its agreed-upon license has expired.”

The day’s actions represent the beginning of a new phase of resistance to VT Yankee and defense of democracy.  Visit the SAGE Alliance web page for information about upcoming actions.

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