In the face of continued corporate misconduct, “our legislators, courts and regulators have failed to restore the balance,” the Corporate Accountability Coalition reports.
WASHINGTON — Congress made “zero progress” on corporate accountability last year, according to a coalition of watchdog groups, with not even a single bill to strengthen accountability measures receiving a vote in either the House or Senate.
Indeed, the only accountability-related bill that went up for a vote was a House proposal to make it more difficult for the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate companies — and it passed.
Under an umbrella known as the Corporate Accountability Coalition, a half-dozen groups are warning that this inaction is particularly worrisome given the increased responsibility vested in the legislature in the context of a recent string of severely pro-corporate decisions from the judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court.
“It’s really incumbent on our legislators to say they’re going to put checks on corporations,” Katie Shay, a legal and policy associate with the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, a member of the coalition, told MintPress News.
“What we want to see is elected representatives doing what the general public has said it wants, which is reasonable restrictions on corporations, reasonable regulations and pro-accountability measures that are introduced, widely supported and then actually put up for a vote.”
A new report card from the coalition looks at the meager collection of accountability-related bills that were actually discussed in Congress last year. These included seven proposals in the Senate, five of which were related to attempts to roll back the highly contested 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United. In the House, these included some 13 bills, six of which were again related to the negative impacts of Citizens United.
Analysts then scored each senator and representative on his or her actions on these proposals. Not only did hardly any of these bills receive a full floor vote, but most also received very scant co-sponsorship, indicating either a pointed distaste for or a general disinterest in the broader issues.
“[I]ncidents of egregious corporate misconduct continue, and our legislators, courts and regulators have failed to restore the balance,” the report card states.
“Because so few relevant bills have come to a vote, bill sponsorship best represents leadership on corporate accountability issues … Some actions that addressed important issues regarding corporate responsibility and necessary limitations on corporate power garnered little, if any, co-sponsorship.”
Ultimately, just two representatives — John Conyers of Michigan and Keith Ellison of Minnesota — and seven senators received “perfect” scores, according to the report card, indicating that these individuals actively supported each pro-accountability measure, usually acting as a co-sponsor.
And while each of these nine lawmakers is a member of the Democratic Party, the tally of inaction is long across both parties. The average score across the entire Congress, after all, was just 16 percent — down from 25 percent under the previous year’s report card.
“In many ways, that’s not surprising — we’re in a system where corporations have a lot of power over every member of Congress, regardless of their politics,” Shay said.
“What we’re really looking for here is leadership. Importantly, there are a lot of members that have good but not perfect scores, and we really want those people to become leaders and understand that these issues are important for their constituencies.”
Citizens United focus
In addition to the proposals related to the SEC and Citizens United cases, accountability-related bills that were introduced in Congress last year included House and Senateattempts to weaken so-called binding arbitration clauses. Companies have increasingly sought to include these extrajudicial clauses in contracts and disclaimers in recent years, despite warnings by consumer and labor groups that they result in unequal bargaining powers in favor of corporate entities.
Both chambers also discussed, but didn’t vote on, abill that would require shareholder approval for corporate political expenditures. Such concerns, of course, have become particularly prominent in the wake of the Citizens United case, which for the first time allowed essentially unlimited anonymous corporate money to flow into the political system. The results have rewritten the electoral rules across the country, but they have also prompted concern among some shareholders that unknown political activities by corporate heads could be endangering their investments.
The House also considered some legislation that the Senate never took up. This included bills that would, again, seek to limit corporate political spending, to make it easier to sue foreign companies in the United States, and to begin eliminating subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.
Congressional action on corporate accountability was dominated by concern over the fallout from Citizens United, however, particularly over a slew of possible constitutional amendments. These proposals not only constituted a clear reflection of the impact that many feel that decision has had, but likely also make for surprisingly good, albeit populist, politics.
In poll after poll in recent years, the public has overwhelmingly endorsed stronger restrictions on both money in politics and corporate influence on the political system. Inpolling results released in December, a whopping 91 percent of nationwide respondents supported reducing the influence of money in politics. A 2012poll likewise found that 89 percent of Americans believe that there is “way too much corporate money in politics.”
Nonetheless, neither the courts nor the Congress has acted substantively on these sentiments, and in notable cases, they have worked in the opposite direction. According to many analysts, today’s situation is the result of incremental — and some say concerted — moves that have spanned recent decades.
“It’s undeniable that in the last 30 to 40 years, and culminating in some very high-profile cases in the last few years, the courts and especially the Supreme Court have granted greater rights and protections to corporations, including multinational companies doing business in the U.S.,” Marco Simons, legal director at EarthRights International, a watchdog group here, and member of the Corporate Accountability Coalition, told MintPress.
“At the same time, Congress and the courts have not kept up with this trend by ensuring that corporations have responsibilities and accountability commensurate with the rights and power they’ve been granted in our society.”
Simons says much of this trend can be traced through evolving social and legal views on the idea of corporate “personhood” — the steady move to vest corporations with many of the same rights as U.S. citizens. This idea was at the heart of the Citizens United case, for instance, in addition to other legal findings in favor of corporations’ First Amendment rights.
Indeed, another landmark Supreme Court decision in this regard will be handed down in coming weeks, the widely watched Hobby Lobby case. This legal fight is essentially over whether the government can require companies to offer their employees access to contraception, as required under new federal health care statutes.
Yet analysts say the broader implications of the Hobby Lobby decision have to do with whether corporations, like humans, should be vested with religious rights. Such a decision would also be seen as a further cementing of the “constitutionalization” of corporate rights.
“It’s important to remember that this notion of corporate personhood is completely divorced from the historical origins of business corporations, in that the framers of the Constitution did not believe corporations to be the bearers of rights,” Simons, of EarthRights International, said.
“Things that are routine in the corporate world today, such as holding companies, were illegal in every state in the 19th century. So the notion that the Constitution somehow protects the rights of these entities is a very dangerous one which transfers a great deal of power over our economy and the regulation of all kinds of activities away from Congress and the political branches to the courts.”
In discerning the intellectual origins of the idea of corporate personhood, analysts often look to a 1971memorandum written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell, who would shortly go on to become a Supreme Court justice. Titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” the memo discussed strategies under which the corporate system could defend itself from sustained attacks by “disquieting voices.”
Powell particularly urged the Chamber of Commerce and its allies to band together with a long-term goal of achieving broad political power, including through the use of an “activist-minded Supreme Court.” The Powell memo has been cited ever since as a defining strategy for the corporatist right wing in the United States. According to the new Corporate Accountability Coalition report, the Chamber of Commerce spent almost $75 million lobbying Congress last year.
“It’s a very worrying trend, but it’s not something that the rest of the government is powerless to change,” Simons said.
“If Congress were to move on the issue, I think it’s likely there would be widespread support for a constitutional amendment that makes clear that corporations are not endowed with rights to the same degree as human beings, and that they can be regulated in any way the government wants. After all, it is the government that allows them to exist in the first place.”