Big Profits, Bigger Crimes

Corporate crime and wrongdoing is an everyday fact of life in the United States and around the world. Still, the last year has been remarkable for a series of high-profile, deadly corporate disasters: the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe that killed 11 workers and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the deadly explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, and unintended acceleration of Toyota cars.

You might think that these disasters, singly and together, would impel desperately needed legislative reform. You might think that, but if you did, you would be wrong.

Despite blanket TV and newspaper coverage of the corporate wrongdoing in each case, despite deep public outrage and fear, despite public clamor for action to prevent the same things from happening, Congress has done ? exactly nothing.

And the situation is about to get worse.

To be fair, the House of Representatives in each instance took at least some action, and might have done more if things looked better in the Senate. But Senate Republicans — sometimes with Democratic allies — acting on behalf of corporate patrons have blocked reform efforts. There’s still a small chance of overcoming the corporate blockade, but with the lame duck session winding down, the window of opportunity is closing fast.

* For much of the summer, the nation was transfixed by underwater video feeds of the BP oil gusher. Less visually grabbing was the gusher of evidence of the recklessness of BP and its corporate partners. This was not a disaster that could reasonably be considered an “accident.”

The House of Representatives responded by passing legislation that would remove the $75 million liability cap for oil damages — an invitation to corporate irresponsibility — remove an exemption from environmental analysis for projects like Deepwater Horizon, and bar companies with poor safety and environmental records from receiving new offshore drilling leases. But oil industry-allied Senators prevented passage of the bill. (Take action: )

* The explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 miners, and served as yet another reminder of the failure of existing law to protect America’s workers. It also introduced the country to a caricature of a heartless CEO, Massey Energy’s Don Blankenship.

If ever there was a moment for forward progress on workplace health and safety, it was in the wake of the Massey tragedy. The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety and Health Act would modestly increase the size of fines for endangering workers, make it a felony to cause the death of a worker by knowingly violating safety rules, protect whistleblowers who call attention to workplace hazards, and deter employers from delaying resolution of citations for violations of workplace health and safety rules. But the business lobby has prevented the bill from moving ahead. A House committee approved it, but the full House, shamefully, voted down even a stripped down version of the legislation; and the bill never even received a Senate committee vote. (Take action: )

* Reports of sudden acceleration in Toyota cars broke through in the major media over a year ago. They were followed by ever more revelations of problems with Toyota vehicles, disclosures that the car giant had suppressed consumer complaints, major vehicle recalls, public apologies from Toyota, and damning indictments of inaction by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 would upgrade NHTSA safety standards, make more safety information public, and get more funding to the resource-starved federal auto safety agency. Yet thanks to the auto lobby — amazingly, including lobbying from the very General Motors in which the U.S. government (i.e., the public) remains the primary shareholder — Congress has failed to make these common-sense responses to the Toyota debacle into law. (Take action: )

There’s no mystery as to the Congressional failure. It is simply a reflection of the same corporate power that led to the under-regulation and under-enforcement that made each of the corporate disasters possible.

Yet the ability of corporations and industries to block remedial regulatory efforts at the very moment when they are most vulnerable — due to adverse publicity and an outraged public’s call for action — speaks to the extraordinary political power of Big Business.

That power is certain to be enhanced in the incoming Congress.

Most remarkable of all, with evidence all around of the need for stronger rules to control corporations and protect Americans, the business lobby is gearing up for a campaign to roll back existing regulations.

Led by the Chamber of Commerce, corporations are ramping up a campaign claiming that the way to jumpstart the economy is by rolling back regulations.

Yes, corporations have earned record profits in the past quarter — U.S. corporations raked in profits at an annual rate of $1.659 trillion in the third quarter of 2010.

Yes, it was the failure to regulate Wall Street that cost 8 million jobs and plunged us into the current recession.

In a world ruled by power not logic, however, facts are not enough to defeat corporate propaganda and destructive policy agendas.

Doing that will require overcoming public disgust with Washington’s failures. It will also require moving beyond mere outrage with corporate wrongdoing to organized outrage. As deeply flawed as the policy making process is, an organized citizenry can still make change for good. It’s not going to come any other way.

ROBERT WEISSMAN is president of Public Citizen.


ROBERT WEISSMAN is president of Public Citizen.