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The Danger of Invisible Corporate Power

It may take several election cycles to scrub corporate influence and control from our political system.

by John Steel

Let's face it: Large corporations have our country, and us, in a death grip. Some of their bad behavior makes big headlines: the BP oil disaster, Goldman Sachs' financial shenanigans, Enron's book-cooking. However, equally dangerous corporate activity happens every day, far from public view.

Corporations have seeped almost invisibly into nearly every government agency and too many congressional offices. And they're as poisonous as carbon monoxide. In the last 20 years, protective legislation and regulation, carefully constructed from the days of President Coolidge and vastly strengthened due to the Depression, have seriously deteriorated.

There's nothing inherently evil, or even bad, about corporations. Indeed, the combination of capital and management under one roof is efficient and essential in a global, competitive world. So much of our standard of living and our worldwide leadership are directly traceable to our corporate and entrepreneurial culture. But even good things, when they get out of control, turn destructive. Cancer, after all, is just growth gone wild.

There has always been tension between good government and free enterprise. It hurts the bottom line to scrub emissions from coal-burning power generators, ensure meat is sanitary, clean up toxic waste, and disclose the full risks of financial products. But once corporations realized that instead of fighting government they could actually buy it through lobbying and political contributions, the base of our democracy eroded. Their "invisible power" got a grip. The stealthy hunt for corporate profits metastasized from the marketplace and entered the halls of Congress and the executive branch.

The fight over reforming Wall Street is just the latest example. The need for regulation is hardly theoretical here. We're still reeling from a crisis caused by the absence of it. Congress doesn't even need to reinvent the wheel, a favorite task. There were laws and regulations that had worked for so long, such as those to keep banks and investment brokers separate; require diligent lending; prohibit betting against your own borrowers; require full disclosure to borrowers; and, above all, keep the risk with the lenders to insure they make prudent loans.

So why has the debate on reform dragged on for nearly a year? The public wants Wall Street reined in. So why would any legislator, much less an entire political party, get in the way of financial reform? It can't just be a coincidence that the financial sector happens to be the biggest contributor to 2010 congressional campaigns, with more than $129 million doled out already. Financial firms have also spent well over a half a billion dollars on lobbying since early 2009.

To reverse this situation we must change who gets elected to Congress. And that is the one thing we can do, and perhaps the only thing, to neutralize corporate control of our government. Only real people have the vote; corporations don't.

To regain our democracy, we must:

  • Identify and make public those elected representatives who owe their jobs to corporate largesse and cast their votes accordingly.
  • Insulate the election process from corporate funding. Bills in both the Senate and House that would forbid campaign spending by contractors who receive more than $50,000 in taxpayer funds would be a good start.
  • Prohibit lawmakers and lobbyists from interacting with each other, except to exchange ideas on legislation, and require them to publish a record of their contacts.

It may take several election cycles to scrub corporate influence and control from our political system, but once it starts it will gain momentum. And once we've accomplished this feat, appropriate regulation and control will follow. The horse will be before the cart, and the driver will be a human person.

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