Not even our sagacious friend Obey could have imagined how many big mistakes would be pushed through Congress by selfish interests disingenuously shouting “Terrorism! Patriotism! God bless America!” while they grabbed as many governmental goodies as their fat fingers could clutch.
While the media trumpeted a jingoistic call for every American to rally around the flag, and while assorted corporations slapped their logos on billboards to piously proclaim “United We Stand,” a pinstriped, Gucci-clad army of lobbyists for these very same corporations quietly invaded our nation’s capital within hours of the September 11 crashbombings.
Looting the treasury
Like Special Forces going cave-to-cave in Tora Bora, this army went corridor to corridor, office to office, seeking out Congress critters, agency heads, and White House officials in an all-out effort to seize the moment for their own avaricious gain at the expense of everyone else. United We Stand? Hey, their motto is, “Me First.”
Let’s say it bluntly: These corporate interests are shameless war profiteers, predators on our democracy, and never in our history has there been such a loathsome frenzy of looting as the one still underway in Washington. The sheer scope of their haul is breath-taking, yet we continue to have our attention diverted from it by the Bushites and media elites, who keep pointing excitedly to maps of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia.
Even though it’ll make you want to puke, let’s take a look at the corporate greed-o-rama going on under our very noses (and under our waving flag) here on the home front. The list that follows is by no means complete — and while some industries failed to get theirs in the first go-round of 2001, their lobbyists are still deployed en masse.
Who’s at the trough
Airline executives. These guys were at the front of the soup line, and there was sympathetic media coverage of the $15 billion bailout handed to this hard-hit industry within days of the terrorist attacks.
There was scant coverage, however, of the skullduggery within the bailout. For example, with White House backing, airline lobbyists killed all provisions that allocated even a dime of this fund to provide benefits to the devastated families of 140,000 fired workers.
The bailout did include a nifty provision assuring that top executives would keep collecting their bloated paychecks — sparing them any personal sacrifice even as they whacked workers and canceled their severance pay.
Beaches. Some of America’s most highly developed and exclusive coastal beaches do not exist naturally, but have to be re-sanded periodically to maintain the wide expanses that draw developer and tourist dollars. Beach-rebuilding lobbyists flocked to Washington after September 11, wailing that federal dollars for beach rebuilding not only were urgently needed for national-security reasons, but also were “vitally important” to help bolster the economy.
Incredibly, it worked. Dredgers, developers, engineering firms, and others in the beach-lobbying alliance took home $150 million, the largest sum ever doled out for sand. One beach lobbyist exulted: “We got a whole bunch.”
Beer. For years, Anheuser-Busch has been lobbying for a repeal of the excise tax on beer. Their arguments had fallen flat prior to September 11, but with Bush suddenly pushing an emergency “economic stimulus” package loaded with corporate giveaways, the big brewers saw a new keg to tap. They have not succeeded so far, but as the top beer lobbyist said, now that the stimulus bill has turned into a “pig fest, we want ours.”
Biotech corporations. Giants like Monsanto and DuPont lumbered into Washington with demands that their lobbying wish list be stapled to Bush’s $3 billion bill to defend America against bioterrorism. Their lobbyists handed Congress a ready-to-go bill that included (in the name of national security, of course) such self-serving provisions as limiting the industry’s liability for any adverse effects of the bioengineered products they make; severely restricting the money that courts can award to anyone who suffers or dies from their “biomedicines”; and requiring us taxpayers to defend them in court and pay any judgments against them for injuries or death caused by the products they sell under the rubric of battling bioterrorism.
Democrat Joe Lieberman, a major recipient of biomoney, has written a new bill that contains the industry’s entire wish list.
Boeing. America’s largest aircraft maker mobilized an attack force of 34 in-house and more than 50 for-hire lobbyists to go after military money that it knew would flow like manna from heaven as a result of the war build-up. “I’m very optimistic about what’s coming,” gushed a top Boeing exec.
Sure enough, December’s Pentagon appropriations bill showered the corporation with gifts, including an expensive extra-special gewgaw that requires the Air Force to lease 100 of Boeing’s wide-body 767 commercial jets to use as refueling tankers. The lease price for this Boeing boondoggle is $20 million per jet per year for 10 years. That’s $20 billion — way more costly than simply buying the planes.
There’s more. Since the 767s are commercial aircraft, the Air Force must spend another $3 billion to convert the 100 planes to tankers. And when the 10-year lease is up, each plane must be returned to Boeing as it was delivered, requiring another $3 billion from taxpayers to restore them to commercial use.
The Air Force doesn’t even want these pricey planes, and there were no hearings or even a vote on this — the whole thing was inserted into the Pentagon bill at the last minute by Republican Senator Ted Stevens and Democrat Patty Murray. They also threw in one more bauble: a 10-year lease by the Air Force of four Boeing 737s to be used as executive jets to ferry Pentagon brass and members of Congress hither, thither, and yon.
Cayman tax sham. George W. has been pounding his chest and declaring an end to money-laundering operations run by global banks. His Treasury Secretary, however, quietly cut a December deal with officials of the Cayman Islands to shield U.S. banks like Citigroup that run secret accounts in the Caymans for their shady clients. The islands, a notorious haven for tax cheats, have $800 billion stashed in their “private banks” by wealthy Americans — about a third as much money as is deposited in legitimate accounts here at home. Citigroup and others make billions in fees from these offshore (and off-the-books) accounts.
Under the agreement, the deal doesn’t take effect until 2004, giving the banks and their clients plenty of time to move to another safe haven. Meanwhile, the agreement says that illegal activities taking place in Cayman banks until 2004 will never be prosecuted — nor can they even be reported to U.S. authorities!
Daschle’s dog. In the Texas legislature, a special-interest bill so ugly that no one wants to walk it through the process is called a dog. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle didn’t want to be seen with his dog, so in the dead of night, just hours before Congress adjourned on December 20, he slipped it into the massive military-appropriations bill, knowing that anything in there would whisk through unquestioned.
Tom’s amendment was a piece of self-serving dreck for Barrick Gold of Canada, which happens to own a massive gold mine in Tom’s state of South Dakota. This multibillion-dollar mine has played out, and Barrick wants to close it and give it to the government as some vaguely defined underground science lab. Problem is, the mine is a toxic mess with a clean-up cost of some $40 million.
Of course, Barrick doesn’t want to pay, so Tom came to its rescue. His dog first exempts Barrick from “any and all liability relating to the mine,” completely exonerating it from all “damages to natural resources or the environment.” Then, if anyone does sue Barrick, Daschle obligates Uncle Sam to defend the Canadian corporation in court and reimburse it for any penalties assessed.
Drug makers. Since September 11, Washington’s most powerful lobby has unleashed 625 registered lobbyists on the capital — 90 more lobbyists than there are members of Congress. They spend nearly $100 million a year to lobby, they invested $26 million in the last congressional and presidential campaigns, and they gave $625,000 to Bush’s inaugural committee.
They are so wired that top executives of Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Eli Lilly, Merck, Pfizer, and others have met with Bush cabinet members — and at least once with George himself — to help design Bush’s counterterrorism program. “We are part of the nation’s defense system,” boasted Bristol-Myers’ CEO, Peter Dolan.
More accurately, they are part of the Big Drug Makers’ defense system. Among the proposals they’re pushing in the name of national security are: blocking generic drug companies from making cheaper versions of their drugs; immunizing corporations from lawsuits by Americans made sick (or dead) by any drugs they sell to “fight bioterrorism”; and waiving certain FDA rules that require testing of drugs, quality-control standards, and notifying authorities of serious illnesses and injuries being caused by their products.
Grab-all greed package. This is the slimy “economic stimulus” bill that Bush is still trying to flog through Congress. The media has reported on its two slimiest provisions: yet another cut in the capital-gains tax and the retroactive elimination of the minimum corporate tax.
Largely unreported, however, are dozens of smaller deals stuck in this load of manure by lobbyists for such corporate interests as computer barons (three years of tax breaks); aviation firms, including flight schools and skydiving companies ($7.5 billion in federal grants and loan guarantees); and theme parks (a tax credit for trips to Disneyland, etc.).
The stench of Bush’s stimulus package is so awful that, as columnist Paul Krugman reports, when political consultants tell focus groups what’s in it, they refuse to believe it.
Hospital chains. The corporate, for-profit hospital chains used September 11 as a chance to make a grab for federal disaster aid. Current law says that only nonprofit hospitals can receive these funds, but in November the for-profit hospital lobbyists got lawmakers to introduce their “Parity in Emergency Preparedness and Response Act.” It neatly redefines “nonprofit facility” to include “private for-profit” facilities. I-66. For years, highway builders have been pushing for federal money to widen I-66, which leads out of Washington D.C. into the Virginia countryside. However, neighborhood groups, environmentalists, and some local Virginia officials have stymied the project, calling it unnecessary, wrongheaded, and piggish.
It was revived, though, when Virginia’s governor wrote to Bush urgently asking for $130 million for the widening to help evacuate Washington in case of another terrorist attack.
Insurance bailout. Global insurance giants like AIG immediately asserted that they needed a guaranteed bailout on any future terrorist attacks. If you don’t give it to us, industry lobbyists warned Congress, we won’t write any coverage for buildings, bridges, etc., so nothing will be built and the economy will collapse.
Panicky lawmakers okayed a provision requiring us taxpayers to cover 90% of the claims that the industry would owe in case of another attack. The insurers also won a provision limiting the ability of victims of terrorism to seek damages in court.
And while insurers still have to pay out for the losses incurred on September 11, the attacks also caused a huge surge in insurance purchases and gave the industry an excuse both to raise rates dramatically and cut coverage. Executives expect their prices to keep soaring by about 15% a year for the next several years, and the industry’s profit picture is so “astounding,” as one Wall Streeter put it, that investors have pumped $25 billion into insurance companies since 9/11.
Nuke dump. Owners of nuclear-power plants have been drooling over Nevada’s Yucca Mountain for years, seeing it as a convenient place to dump thousands of tons of their radioactive waste. But this site, 90 miles from Las Vegas, is chemically and geologically unsuited to be a burial ground. In fact, a recent earthquake did a million dollars in damage to the Department of Energy field office studying the site!
Nonetheless, in January, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, a shameless industry toady, put his stamp of approval on the Yucca Mountain location: “We should consolidate the nuclear wastes [here] to enhance protection against terrorist attacks,” he lamely but gamely explained.
The R&E tax scam. Lobbyists for such outfits as AT&T, EDS, Johnson & Johnson, and Microsoft got a $47 billion holiday gift from Bush’s Treasury Department on December 14. The Research and Experimentation Tax Credit was designed to encourage scientific advances, but corporations perverted the law by getting credit for such advances as McNuggets and Gillette’s lemon-lime shaving cream.
Spoilsports in Bill Clinton’s Treasury Department, however, adopted new rules that required a corporation’s research to actually add to scientific knowledge in order to qualify for the tax break.
But then along came George, who named the former lobbyist for the R&E Tax Credit Coalition to be his assistant treasury secretary for tax policy! Voila — not only were revised rules issued to restore the giveaway, but they were made retroactive, meaning that companies who had claims denied under Clinton will now get rebate checks from Bush.
Three-martini lunch. Ever since Congress repealed the tax deduction for “business” lunches in 1986, the restaurant industry has been on a mission to restore it.
Proclaiming that eating out is “the cornerstone of the economy,” industry lobbyists insist that the stimulus bill should include a 100% deduction for wining and dining corporate executives. As an industry publication put it, “letting taxpayers write off dinner and a show with a client in New York or Washington seems downright patriotic.”
So many corporate rip-offs, so little space: The incredibly bloated Pentagon budget, which passed in December ($343 billion, not counting the money for the war), hides hundreds of special-interest bombs; while Geraldo and his ilk do Afghanistan, the Bushites have been busy putting up “Y’all come!” signs for polluters to do their damnedest to our waterways, air, and parks; screened by the smoke of war, China was slipped into the WTO; Star Wars got $8.3 billion and a new lease on life despite another failed test; “fast track” authority was rammed through the House; a ream of anti-union directives were issued by the White House; campaign-finance reform was dumped; and Congress gave itself another pay raise.
All of the above were not isolated incidents of special interests getting theirs, but an appalling picture of the wholesale purchase of our government and democracy by a corporate plutocracy. Nothing will stop them . . . but us.
Our country is being stolen, and we have to get together to organize not another group, but a grassroots movement of people already on the move — a movement capable of winning our democracy back (see the Jan. 2002 Lowdown for a few good ideas on this front). As awful as it is, the chronicle of greed in this issue gives us ammunition for agitation . . . and organization.