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It's Not Just Accounting
Published on Wednesday, July 24, 2002 in the Madison Capital Times
It's Not Just Accounting
by John Nichols
 

U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has for years been Congress' most consistent critic of corporate excess, is worried about the current controversy about corporate governance.

Don't get Sanders wrong: He's delighted that revelations about wrongdoing by executives of Enron, WorldCom and other corporations has forced everyone from President Bush to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to recognize that government must regulate business behavior.

The problem, says Sanders, is that, while today's corporations are just as bad as the trusts that needed busting at the start of the last century, Bush is no Teddy Roosevelt and Daschle is no William Jennings Bryan. Instead of real reform, Republican and Democratic leaders are proposing half-steps aimed at requiring accountants to produce better balance sheets.

"The American people have a much better understanding than members of the Bush administration or Congress that this is not just about a few bad rules or a few bad apples. This is about how corporations do business in America today, and about what members of Congress who take immense amounts of corporate money to finance their campaigns allow those corporations to get away with," says Sanders. "If all that comes out of this are a few accounting reforms - necessary as they may be - most Americans are going to say, rightly, that the corporations were let off the hook again."

Sanders is frustrated with the refusal of top Democrats to show even the level of leadership that some Republicans have displayed. It is notable that, while Daschle has pulled the brakes on some reform proposals, Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, is busy denouncing "crony capitalism," calling for the resignation of Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitt, and saying that Congress' actions so far "fall short of doing all that is necessary."

Sanders argues that the dialogue itself falls short. Yes, the Vermont socialist says, corporations have used their lobbying muscle to warp accounting standards. But if Democrats think those are the only places where corporations have overstepped their bounds, they are destined to squander an opportunity to open a great debate about corporate influence over government.

"These (corporate executives and their representatives) are the same people who lobbied against having corporations pay their fair share of taxes," Sanders says. "These are the same people who have done everything in their power to reshape regulations so they can steal the money from employee pension plans. These are the same people who pressure Congress to grant them the 'freedom' to close factories in America, send our jobs to China and then ship back products made using prison labor."

Democratic strategists want to make corporate abuses an election issue. But to do that, Sanders says, "We have to broaden the debate. We have to tie the debate into the trade issue. We have to tie the debate into the estate tax issue. We have to tie the debate into pension issues. What we should be saying is that this whole debate is about a culture of corporate greed that has wrecked our communities, robbed our retirees and lowered the standards for ethical business behavior to a level that disgusts average Americans."

If Democrats would just start to listen to Bernie Sanders, they could reshape American politics. Of course, that would require that Democrats to stop listening to the corporate campaign contributors, who still set far to much of the agenda for what is supposed to be the party of the people.

Copyright 2002 The Capital Times

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