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 Day 19

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The Country is Getting Mugged

Ask the Chamber of Commerce: Why is Too Much Not Enough?

by BILL MOYERS And MICHAEL WINSHIP

Living in these United States, there comes a point at which you throw your hands up in exasperation and despair and ask a fundamental question or two: how much excess profit does corporate America really need? How much bigger do executive salaries and bonuses have to be, how many houses or jets or artworks can be crammed into a life?   After all, as billionaire movie director Steven Spielberg is reported to have said, when all is said and done, "How much better can lunch get?" But since greed is not self-governing, hardly anyone raking in the dough ever stops to say, "That’s it. Enough’s enough! How do we prevent it from sweeping up everything in its path, including us?"

Look at the health care industry saying to hell with consumers and then hiking premiums – by as much as 39% in the case of Anthem Blue Cross in California. According to congressional investigators, over a two-year period Anthem’s parent company WellPoint spent more than $27 million dollars for executive retreats at luxury resorts. And in 2008, WellPoint paid 39 of its executives more than a million dollars each. Profit before patients.

This week, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the health insurance industry’s lobby, announced they’d be spending more than a million dollars on new television ads justifying their costs.

Speaking at their annual policy meeting in Washington – and without a trace of irony – AHIP’s president and CEO Karen Ignagni declared, "The current debate about rising premiums has demonstrated that, in fact, we have a health care cost crisis in this country. Unfortunately, the path that has been followed is one of vilification rather than problem solving."

Beg pardon? You’re lamenting a health care cost crisis and raising your premiums?  Isn’t that like the guy complaining there’s an obesity epidemic in America while ordering a double Big Mac with extra fries?

Of course, a million is a mere bagatelle in the shadow of the $544 million that was spent on lobbying by the health sector last year, plus more than $200 million in advocacy ads. And a million’s just the curtain raiser to what will be spent in these final weeks of health care reform debate.   Two weeks ago, The Washington Post reported, "Washington interest groups have burst back into action in hopes of bolstering or defeating a new Democratic push on health-care reform legislation, sparking another wave of rallies, lobbying efforts and costly advertising campaigns."

This in spite of the projection that over ten years the Obama plan would plop an additional $336 billion into the insurance companies’ pockets – in the form of subsidies given to those who can’t afford to buy health insurance on their own.

Okay, this is getting weird: We’re going to help the poor by enriching their exploiters?

But apparently even that won’t satisfy big business’ voracious appetite for more. On Tuesday, Employers for a Healthy Economy, a coalition of 248 business groups, led by the U.S Chamber of Commerce, and including construction and manufacturing interests, as well as health insurance companies, said that over ten days they will spend up to $10 million on ads aimed at putting the screws on members of Congress to vote against health care reform.

Goodness knows, it isn’t just because their profit margins may dwindle. No, according to Neil Trautwein, vice president of the National Retail Federation, one of the trade associations involved, "These bills are job killers. Retail simply cannot afford any higher benefit costs or burdensome mandates."  (Never mind that extrapolating from baseline forecasts made by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment Projections Program, the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, projects that health care reform possibly could create an average of as many as 400,000 new jobs a year.)

But beyond the health care fight, and perhaps far more significant in the long run, this effort is just one more example of life, Pandora-style. The Company has arrived, only it’s called the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and it’s got its sights on anything that moves, damn the natives, full speed ahead. During 2008, 86% of contributions from the chamber’s political action committee went to GOP candidates. The conservatives have found their Avatar, AKA Frankenstein. 

Of course there is not actually a Chamber of Commerce, at least the way we might imagine it. This is no confederation of congenial, small town business groups that pass out maps of Main Street and souvenir key rings. The chamber in question is a front group.  Yes, yes, it reports a membership of three million businesses, but tax records indicate that in 2008 a third of its contributions came from 19 companies paying between $1 million and $15.3 million. Don’t hold your breath: the chamber is not required to reveal who those 19 are.

The March 8 edition of the Los Angeles Times reports that "internal documents suggest the organization’s treasury is filled in substantial part by contributions from a couple dozen major corporations most affected by Washington policymakers."

Got it? Predators who prey together stick together.

With all that cash, the Times notes, "The chamber spent more than $144 million on lobbying and grass-roots organizing last year, a 60% increase over 2008, and well beyond the spending of individual labor unions or the Democratic or Republican national committees. The chamber is expected to substantially exceed that spending level in 2010."

This elite organization of oligarchs has been emboldened by the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which now allows corporations to spend freely on political campaigns right up until Election Day, and by the chamber’s recent success contributing a million dollars for ads supporting Republican Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

What’s more, writes the Los Angeles Times, "Using trade associations such as the chamber as the vehicle for spending corporate money on politics has an extra appeal: These groups can take large contributions from companies and wealthy individuals in ways that will probably avoid public disclosure requirements."

So with the spring comes anonymous greed run rampant. "In the past a lot of companies and wealthy individuals stood on the sidelines" of politics, a corporate lawyer at Washington’s influential law firm Covington & Burling told the Times.

"That cloud has been lifted," he said.

As the sun sets on democracy.

No wonder demonstrators outside that health insurance meeting in Washington this week surrounded the hotel with yellow crime scene tape.

The entire country is being mugged.

 

WORDS THAT STICK