The Real Shakedown

To say that the American consumer stood by helplessly for the past few years while Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, and big oil made record, gargantuan profits is almost a cliche, but it’s true, and that fact makes Texas congressman Joe Barton’s apology to British Petroleum even more egregious.

After all, it is big banks, big business, and big bailouts that has been the catalyst for rising, ambiguous, but nevertheless obdurate discontent which has tried to coalesce into a coherent party, the “Tea Party,” with an identifiable platform. Not surprising, then, that ultra conservatives like Dick Armey and John Boehner managed to extrapolate a faux apology for his apology from Barton.

If it seems like everything is upside down these days that may be because it is. The congressman from Texas should instead be apologizing for the gluttony of corporations and their ongoing shakedown of the American family, especially in light of a study released Wednesday, the 2009 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress prepared for Congress by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The discovery of $1 trillion of mineral resources in Afghanistan was stunning enough to make the front page of last week’s New York Times despite the fact that the United States Geological Society has been issuing reports dating back thirty years attesting to Afghanistan’s mineral wealth. Yet, the shocking findings from HUD have been eclipsed by coverage of the gulf disaster. Yes, pelicans are not the only one endangered by corporate misadventures, the American family is, too.

Take a look at some of these findings from McClatchy: nearly 200,000 families were driven by foreclosure, and job loss into homeless shelters last year alone, a rise of approximately 30% since 2007. While the number of homeless individuals fell, the number of homeless families has increased two years in a row.

Another recent study also indicates that in the period from 2007 to 2008 the number of families who move in with others, or double up, has increased by nearly 10%, and that those so-called doubled-up families ultimately end up homeless.

The president’s plan to put $20 billion of BP funds in escrow for victims of the oil leak in the gulf of Mexico is intended to keep these families from being driven into homeless shelters by this catastrophe. This is not just about a rescue plan for victims of a grossly deregulated, mismanaged, and unsupervised oil company. This gesture on the part of the White House reflects a way of seeing the world that suggests government intervene on behalf of the disenfranchised, and not to divest them of their resources even further, a worldview not shared by Rep. Barton and his conservative counterparts in Congress.

The release of these startling statistics comes on the eve of the announcement of the Obama administration’s proposal to create a national plan to address the crisis of the rising number of homeless families. Given his remarks about BP, House Republican, the Representative from Texas, Joe Barton, will undoubtedly regard any monies allocated to deal with homelessness as a “slush fund” for the indigent.

Is this where the “family values” folks, those who brought us Newt Gingrich and the “Contract with America,” back in 1994, have taken us? Remember, too, that Gingrich wasn’t the only one on the steering committee the last time the neo-conservative faction of the Republican Party prevailed. Dick Armey and John Boehner were hands-on editors of legislation that cut cash welfare, espousing personal responsibility for individuals, and laissez-faire, free market deregulation for corporations. The retraction doesn’t remove the apology any more than the worldview can be hidden by a change of suit. The driver may be different, but power steering comes with the vehicle.

And, Joe Barton is no stranger to power steering. He was first elected to the House from Texas in 1984. Barton has a special interest in corporations like British Petroleum. In 2004, a year that found an estimated 12% of Americans living below the federal poverty line, Barton was chosen to chair the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

His Web site proudly announces that Rep. Barton is a vigorous proponent of deregulation, and says he is responsible for the first electricity deregulation bill to pass a House subcommittee. It also touts his commitment to promoting what he himself calls a “convervative agenda” which earned him the distinction of being hailed by the National Journal as one of the “Republicans to Watch” back in 2003.

Indeed, events of the past week have shown that Joe Barton is just that — a Republican to watch, a Newt Gingrich Republican, one who is more concerned about cleansing the airwaves of indecency than of cleansing the Gulf of Mexico of the corporate corruption that caused this crisis in the first place.

At a time when a record number of Americans, nearly 40 million, receive food stamps, as Reuters projects, when twice as many have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer than just a year ago, when we have a record number of working poor, people who earn marginally more than their weekly unemployment benefit amount, it boggles the mind that anyone, but an unabashed apologist for special interests, would even dare to publicly support a company that has fast become emblematic of laying waste to nature in the interest of turning a profit.

It boggles the mind when the shakedown of the American worker has never been greater with a grossly disproportionate amount of wealth deposited in the laps of the upper one percent of the population that asking a corporation to take responsibility for the damages it has incurred on working men and women would be condemned by any member of Congress.

If there is any good news to come out of what may be the greatest man-made calamity to impact nature, and wildlife, of our times it is the naked truth that the GOP, and their partners in crime the oil companies, want to put working people in this country on an austerity program while they pay themselves, and their chief executives millions to accomplish little more than photo ops, and evasive testimony to Congress.

Joe Barton was around for the last midterm Republican revolution, and he may single handedly have defeated the next one.

JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.



JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.