Corporate lobbyists pulled off one of the most remarkable raids on the public treasury in American history when, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they grabbed $15 billion in federal aid for the airline industry. Against barely a whimper of opposition from Congress, they collected a few-strings-attached largesse that secured the positions of executives and investors while providing no protections for laid-off workers or lay-over travelers.
Now, the lobbyists are back in Washington. The Gucci Brigades clog the sidewalks around the Capitol, cell phones permanently attached to their ears - except when they spy senators who are ripe for buttonholing. Their appetites whetted by the success of the airline bailout scam, the lobbyists have returned for the big prize: $16 billion in tax refunds to the nation's largest and most profitable corporations.
The "economic stimulus" bill that House Republicans rammed through their chamber is being pushed toward a Senate vote by the party's partisans in the upper chamber. And they are getting a major assist from corporate lobbyists who have swarmed the Capitol.
Rarely in the history of Congress has such blatant corporate welfare been attempted. If passed by the Senate and signed by President Bush, the GOP stimulus plan - which has an overall first-year price tag of $99.5 billion - would provide refunds to major corporations for tax payments made over the past 15 years. Corporations such as General Electric and IBM would receive complete rebates of their payments under the alternative minimum tax law passed during the Reagan years to ensure that, after repeated reductions of business taxes, corporations would still pay a minimal amount.
Now, however, congressional Republicans want to give those corporations back what little they paid the federal treasury. The payouts to individual corporations would be dramatic - including $1.4 billion to IBM and $1 billion to Ford. Worse yet, GOP senators want to eliminate the alternative minimum tax altogether, so that many corporations might never again pay any taxes.
Hence the heavy lobbyist presence; for big business, securing free money and freedom from taxation is Job One.
The problem they've got is that Senate Democrats seem finally to have begun to awaken from the long bipartisan slumber that saw the party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman marching pretty much in lock step with the party of Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan. Democrats, chastened by their constituents for failing to stand up for working Americans in a time of economic decline, have signaled that they are prepared to fight against what Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., rightly refers to as "profiteering in the name of patriotism." Durbin and other Democrats are backing a modest $66.4 billion stimulus plan that provides some tax cuts but also extends unemployment benefits for out-of-work Americans, aids hard-pressed farmers and offers a measure of the public investment needed to shore up a sagging economy.
While the Democrats' plan falls short of the level of investment needed to genuinely stimulate a sagging economy, it is dramatically superior to a package of tax breaks for corporations that have shown a marked inclination toward banking their money or investing it overseas. As Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., noted, "If there is any dollar that will be spent immediately into our economy, it is unemployment insurance."
What is the GOP counter to that argument?
Predictably, it questioned the patriotism of senators who might choose to serve the interests of the vast majority of Americans. "You don't override the president at a time like this," warned Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. And they are charging Democrats with dividing an otherwise unified America. "What we're going to see (from Senate Democrats) is almost a class warfare on the issue of the stimulus bill," charged Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, signaling that the GOP line of attack would be grounded not in economics but in wartime invective.
Will the Democrats engage in class warfare this week?
We can only hope. It would be a welcome shift in the dynamics of the class war on working Americans that has been going on since Congress began to enact Reagan's programs in 1981. Across 20 years, federal tax, trade and spending priorities have steadily been warped by lobbyists and compliant politicians to serve narrow special interests rather than the public interest. And it has been an all-out assault since Sept. 11.
If Senate Democrats use their majority status to block the GOP plan, they will not be starting a class war. They will be mounting an all-too-rare defense of the working Americans they should have represented in the fight over the airline bailout and every battle since.
Copyright 2001 The Capital Times