Rage to Reform

Why policymakers need to hear the nation's anger.

A U.S. Capitol Police officer stopped me as I tried to make my way
inside the House Financial Services Subcommittee hearing on AIG
compensation last week wearing a sign pinned to my butt that read,
"Bonus? My ass!" "I was told by the committee that you can't go in with
signs that have profanity," the officer said. "So you'll have to take
that off." Then, as I unpinned the sign from my skirt, he whispered,
"Not that I don't agree with you."

Members of Codepink, or "the
pink ladies," as Congressman Paul E. Kanjorski of the finance
subcommittee called us, became a fixture in congressional chambers
during the Bush administration, protesting the war in Iraq. We gave
voice to the general public sentiment that had turned against the war
long before Congress did. We embodied the public outrage that helped
sweep Barack Obama into the White House.

while Codepink still rallies and lobbies for an end to the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan, we've become vocal-and visible-opponents of Wall
Street bailouts. Once again, we represent the public's anger, this time
against the corporate profiteers who, in the words of Sen. Charles
Grassley, are "sucking the tit of the taxpayer." We personally share in
the anger: one of the women with us inside last week's hearing room was
Cynthia Benjamin (no relation), a nurse for 34 years with a son serving
in Iraq. She drove to D.C. from upstate New York to give Congress a
piece of her mind.

"You're damn right I'm angry," Cynthia told a
reporter during a break. "First they took my son, who is serving his
second tour of duty in Iraq, and now they took my retirement fund and
my 401[k]. What the hell is this government doing?"

expressions of public outrage are all too rare inside the halls of
Congress or the D.C. Beltway. At public hearings in Congress, the
gray-suited K Street corporate lobbyists pay poor people (known in the
business as "line standers") to hold their spots in line so they can
breeze into the hearings at the last minute, making it almost
impossible for the public to get in.

But the public's anger at
the corporate greed that spurred our economic crisis has pushed people
to work harder to make their voices heard-from swamping the
congressional switchboards with calls to camping outside a
congressional hearing to guarantee entry. Back in their home districts,
lawmakers are besieged by constituents demanding answers, demanding
transparency, demanding solutions. Lawmakers need to hear this public
outrage and will make better policy if they do. In fact, the one silver
lining of this economic debacle is an opening for instituting populist
policies that could rein in some of these corporate excesses.

public has finally woken up to the obscene distortion of values in the
corporate world, which includes salaries and bonuses that are simply
out of whack. In 1980, CEOs at Fortune 500 firms were paid 42 times the
average worker's salary. By 2007, they were being paid on average 364
times as much.

The public has figured this out, and has begun
to figure out solutions, too-and demand them. Shareholders, the true
owners of corporations, should have the right to vote on major business
decisions, including executive compensation. The accounting loophole
that allows companies to sequester stock options from regular expenses
must be closed, and options should be accounted for in every company's
balance sheet. Congress should also do away with the ridiculous tax
loophole for managers of hedge funds-the ability to claim their income
as capital gains and pay only 15 percent in federal taxes-and put a
conclusive end to excessive executive pay by capping tax deductions for
executive compensation at 25 times the salary of any company's
lowest-paid employee. If that worker received the minimum wage, the
deductible for an executive would be capped at $304,200. The company
could pay the executive more, but would not receive a tax break for the
excess. This would generate more than $5 billion in extra revenues
while acting as a check on grossly excessive compensation.

these solutions alone will not fix the underlying problems with the
corporate system that forced us into this mess. We need to create a new
legal and regulatory framework that aligns corporations with social
needs, including giving greater power to shareholders. A system that
requires boards of directors to include representatives of all major
stakeholders-workers, government and communities-and enforces
collective-bargaining laws that level the balance of power between
workers and managers.

The economic crisis, and the public's furor
over executive pay and behavior, has provided Congress with an
opportunity not just to rein in CEO compensation but also to remake the
out-of-touch, irresponsible corporate system. Until that happens, we'll
keep wearing our signs.

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