“And the banks — hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created—are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place”
That was Sen Richard Durbin, the powerful Senate Democratic whip, irate as the banking lobby, with foreclosures soaring across the nation, blocked a core reform for beleaguered homeowners that would give judges the right to modify mortgages in bankruptcy court.
But it isn’t just the banks. Agribusiness is protecting its obscene subsidies. The insurance companies are deploying legions of lobbyists to gut the public plan in health care reform, the heart of President Obama’s plan. The utilities are carving out exceptions for coal plants. Multinationals are clearly on the way to disemboweling Obama tax proposals. The military industrial lobby is a good bet to frustrate Defense Secretary Bill Gates’ modest procurement reforms.
This isn’t about America being a “center-right country,” the myth that pundits still peddle about the American people. This is about Congress being bought and sold, pure and simple. Each night, Washington slurps on political fund-raisers. Each day, the deals get cut; the favors get done. Now with Republicans lining up lemming-like to obstruct anything Obama, Congress can be bought on the cheap. The lobbies have only to enlist (suborn, bribe, seduce, finance) a few of what the press insists on describing as “moderate Democrats” in the Senate to stop any reform they don’t like.
What’s often forgotten in this squalid exchange is that the very Americans the legislators preen to represent are the victims of their various corruptions.
For example, with the swine flu alert sweeping the country, President Obama and the Centers for Disease Control urged people with flu symptoms to stay home. This is a common-sense measure to limit the spread of what might be a dangerous virus.
Only one problem, as The New York Times reminds us in an editorial Tuesday morning. About 60 million Americans don’t have paid sick leave. Many can be fired if they stay home. And if not fired, many simply can’t afford to lose the hours.
43 percent of private-sector American workers have no paid sick days at all. And needless to say, the most vulnerable have the least protection. A 2007 Economic Policy Institute study showed that workers at the bottom of the wage scale, those making less than $7.38 an hour, are five times less likely to have sick days than workers at the top of the scale, those making greater than $29.47 an hour. Only 16 percent of low-wage workers have access to paid sick days.
This is a barbarity that is dangerous to your health. Women—who tend still to be disproportionately in part-time and low wage work—are particularly at risk.
More than 160 countries, the Times tells us, have laws that ensure all their citizens receive paid sick leave and more than 110 of them guarantee paid leave from the first day of illness. The U.S. does not. The reason goes no further than the influence of money on politics.
We once provided much of our social contract through the corporation rather than the Congress. Strong unions could negotiate a family wage, health care, overtime pay, paid sick leave, paid vacations, and pensions. Many nonunion employers offered benefits similar to those provided by union companies. But over the last decades of this conservative era, as unions grew weaker under attack, more and more corporations simply shredded those agreements.
Now we’ll have to enact these basic guarantees—central to what Franklin Roosevelt called the Economic Bill of Rights—in law. But each reform will have to overcome the resistance of entrenched lobbies, buying the protection of compromised legislators.
In 2005, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro introduced the Healthy Families Act, which would mandate up to seven paid sick days for employees in firms with more than 15 employees (and pro-rated leave for part-time employees). You’d think this would be a no-brainer. It never came to a vote in the Senate. Obama pledged to support seven-day paid sick leave in his campaign. Many Democratic lobbyists will dine well off of that pledge.
In area after area, Americans are suffering from the accumulated corruptions of our moneyed politics. In the fifth labor of Hercules, an arrogant king tries to demean the hero by hiring him to clean out the Augean stables in a day. The stables, containing the largest herd of cattle in civilization, had never been cleaned. Hercules, with a little help from Athena, changes the path of two rivers and quickly washes out the accumulated filth. But no one is about to change the course of the Potomac to cleanse the backrooms and lobbies of Capitol Hill. The only current strong enough to do that is an aroused public angry enough to sweep away those who stand in the way. Despite rumblings, despite growing awareness of the damage wrought by a sordid and selfish era, we aren’t there yet.