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Politicians put the rich and powerful first
Servants of Corporate America

January 4, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

ALAN MAASS reports on Washington's giveaways to the rich.

"SUPPOSE YOU go to Washington and try to get at your government," President Woodrow Wilson said near the turn of the 20th century. "You will always find that while you are politely listened to, the men really consulted are the men who have the biggest stake--the big bankers, the big manufacturers [and] the big masters of commerce."

Close to a century later, Wilson's words ring as true as ever--and all the more so since the September 11 attacks and the launch of the U.S. "war against terrorism."

The giants of Corporate America have their hands out--and Washington is filling them up with unprecedented goodies. "What happened was a tragedy, certainly," corporate lobbyist James Albertine told the New York Times. "But there are opportunities. We're in business. This is not a charity."

Among the biggest "opportunities" for the bosses is the Bush administration's proposed $212 billion stimulus package for the slumping economy.

The version that passed the Republican-run House would repeal the corporate alternative minimum tax--and refund all payments since the tax was implemented in 1986! The corporate alternative minimum tax was first implemented by that well-known "tax-and-spend liberal" Ronald Reagan. Now Republicans want to get rid of it--to help out suffering corporate giants like IBM, which would get a lump sum of $1.4 billion.

And that's not the half of it. Throw in a capital gains tax cut and faster income tax breaks for the wealthy--not to mention the $15 billion, no-strings-attached airline industry bailout, among other measures already passed into law since September 11--and you have what AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called a clear emphasis "on a corporate agenda at the expense of unemployed workers and real economic recovery."

Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO's "friends" in Washington aren't offering much different. Senate Democrats blocked the House stimulus package from coming to a vote last month. But the main selling point of the Democratic alternative is a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits--limited compared to similar measures in previous recessions and of no use at all to the more than 60 percent of employees who aren't eligible for jobless benefits.

And some leading Democrats are ready to cave even on this. For example, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Al Gore's running mate last year, said last month that "the most important thing is for the government to act in a way to help the business community, the private sector, grow again."

Lieberman was only being more honest than most in admitting that the Democrats agree with Bush on the main point--that big business will come first.

Still, the Bush gang isn't waiting for Congress. The administration has quietly gone on the offensive in dismantling environmental, consumer protection and workplace regulations. The latest example: The administration is expected to announce plans to weaken the Clean Air Act by allowing coal-burning power plants to bypass some antipollution rules.

The White House faced sharp criticism for proposals like these before September 11. But now, the administration is looking to exploit Bush's wartime popularity.

Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, explained the cynical calculation. "The president understands that if we are successful in the prosecution of the war, that will create political capital," Rove told the Baltimore Sun. "If you don't spend it, it's not like treasures stuck away in a storehouse someplace; it's perishable."

The truth couldn't be clearer--the Bush gang is exploiting the horror of September 11 to get away with highway robbery.

How the bosses buy influence

THERE'S NOTHING subtle about the way Corporate America buys influence in Washington. Just look at the case of Enron, the energy giant that went belly up last year after years of financial shenanigans finally caught up with it.

Enron's spectacular growth in the newly deregulated energy industry depended on having powerful friends in Washington. Friends like Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), who received nearly $100,000 in direct donations from Enron--and whose wife Wendy was hired onto the company's board of directors.

In 1999, as head of the Senate Banking Committee, Gramm backed legislation that exempted energy trading--Enron's core business--from government oversight. In the months that followed, energy traders like Enron jacked up wholesale electricity prices to obscene levels, leading to last year's power crisis in California.

Enron seemingly hit the jackpot with the election of George W. Bush. The company has been Bush's biggest financial backer by far since he first ran for Texas governor in the early 1990s. When Bush took over the White House, Enron CEO Kenneth Lay effectively became the informal U.S. chief of energy policy.

No wonder Enron was generous with its political donations. During the 2000 elections, the company and its top executives gave $1.7 million in soft-money contributions to the major parties--a healthy chunk of the $440 million total in soft money last year.

Republicans have always gotten most of the cash. But Democrats like Bill Clinton and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) made out as well--as long as they delivered on deregulation.

Enron may have been more brazen than most companies. But there's no doubt that all of Corporate America plays at the money-for-influence game.

"It's called buying access," said Matt Keller, deputy legislative director of the campaign finance reform group Common Cause. "It doesn't matter if it's Trent Lott or Fred Flintstone. They're not giving for ideological reasons. They are giving for access reasons."

What the U.S. has in store for Afghanistan

THE BUSH White House claims the war on Afghanistan is about "justice" and "freedom." But there's another motive near and dear to the hearts of an administration packed with Texas oil boys.

Afghanistan borders the Caspian Sea region, where vast reserves of oil and natural gas have been discovered. Big Oil wants to control the Caspian boom--and it's looking to Washington for help.

When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, oil giant Unocal began courting the hard-line Islamists in the hopes of winning support for construction of an oil pipeline from the Caspian region across Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian Ocean.

The Bush administration reportedly reopened discussions about oil with the Taliban shortly after taking over the White House. Former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Niaz Niak said a U.S. official told him that the Afghan government was given the choice of "a carpet of gold or a carpet of bombs."

Now the pipeline plan could be dusted off yet again. "Once we bomb the hell out of Afghanistan, we will have to cough up some projects there, and this pipeline is one of them," Matthew Sagers of the corporate consulting firm Cambridge Energy Research Associates, told the New York Times.

It's the latest chapter in a story as old as U.S. military adventures overseas--the U.S. government uses its armed might to promote the interests of big business.

The fight for an alternative

THERE WAS never much more than a dime's worth of difference between Democrats and Republicans. But after September 11, that difference has shrunk to a few pennies. Almost every prominent Democrat has fallen in line behind Bush's war drive.

Democratic senators did take a stand against the administration's economic stimulus package for not providing enough help for laid-off workers. But the dispute over jobless benefits hid the much wider agreement among the two parties--that Corporate America needs a big handout.

This situation illustrates why the hope of building a political alternative lies not with searching for sympathetic Democrats, but in organizing a movement that can put pressure on all the politicians. That, after all, was how the important reforms of the past were won.

Though Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson usually get the credit for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, they were actually responding to the massive pressure mobilized by the civil rights movement.

Likewise, the president who presided over the most liberal changes in U.S. society--from welfare to abortion rights to the environment--was none other than Richard Nixon. Nixon was no liberal, of course. But he was president when the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s were at the height of their influence.

The actions of masses people forced the politicians of both parties to act. That's why today's struggles--even if they seem small--are so important. They are laying the basis for the fights to come--when ordinary people show Washington that they're fed up with a corrupt system that serves corporate greed first.

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