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Darrell Issa Invites His Capitalist Cronies to Cry Wolf

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Newly emboldened as chair of the House's key investigative committee, Congressman Darrell Issa, a conservative California Republican, this week sent letters to more than 150 business lobby groups, asking them to identify government rules that they want eliminated

Issa wants to hand the government over to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a who's who of corporate America. The new Republican Congress is their opportunity to get rid of those pesky environmental laws, consumer product safety laws, and even rules to prevent another Wall Street financial train wreck.

Issa plans to hold hearings of his Oversight and Government Reform Committee to explore how he can help corporate America rid itself of "burdensome government regulations." According to Politico, Issa asked businesses, including Duke Energy, FMC Corp., Toyota and Bayer, to supply him with their wish lists. He also sent letters to industry lobby groups including the American Petroleum Institute, National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the Association of American Railroads, the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA) and entities representing health care and telecommunication providers.

It isn't hard to imagine what that their wish list will look like. Indeed, it hasn't changed much in the past century. The specific bills and issues ebb and flow, but the business mantra is always the same. Get government off our backs. Let the "free" market determine what we make and how we make it. We can police ourselves. Too many government rules kills jobs.

Issa is only the most recent incarnation of conservative members of Congress who hold hearings to give their corporate allies a platform to warn about the disastrous consequences of government activism.

Let's go back in time and see what corporate leaders have predicted about proposed government rules seeking to make business more socially responsible:

  • In 1906, Thomas Wilson, an executive from the Morris and Company, a large meatpacking firm (a co-founder of the National Packing Company or "Beef Trust,") opposed the Meat Inspection Act, designed to protect consumers from contaminated meat. "We are opposed to a bill...that will put our business in the hands of theorists, chemists, sociologists, etc.," he said," and the management and control taken away from the men who have devoted their lives to the upbuilding and perfecting of this great American industry."
  • In 1906, the Proprietary Association, a lobby for medicine companies, warned that the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 "would practically destroy the sale of proprietary remedies in the United States."
  • In 1933 Clarence E. Martin, President of the American Bar Association, denounced child labor laws as "a communistic effort to nationalize children, making them primarily responsible to the government instead of to their parents. It strikes at the home. It appears to be a definite positive plan to destroy the Republic and substitute a social democracy."
  • In 1937, when FDR proposed the nation's first federal minimum wage, the National Association of Manufacturers warned that it "constitutes a step in the direction of communism, bolshevism, fascism, and Nazism."
  • Opposing the first federal law to require the testing of drugs before they could be sold to consumers (the 1938 Federal Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act), the New York Board of Trade's Drug, Chemical and Allied Trades section warned that "[The bill] will seriously affect employment and morale in the industries indicated. It will put thousands of men and women out of work. It will close dozens of manufacturing plants and hundreds of stores... It will hurt thousands... It will help none." The National Association of Retail Druggists claimed the bill would "wreck the industry of pharmacy."
  • In 1947, Charles Farrington of the National Coal Association warned Congress that strengthening safety measures contained in the Federal Mine Safety Code will "create rules and regulations under which many safe mines would be required to be abandoned, because it is impossible to attain perfection."
  • Despite growing public concern about the tragic consequences of Thalidomide, a sedative that was withdrawn from the market after being found to be a cause of serious birth defects, the drug and cosmetic industry opposed the Drug Industry Act of 1962, which required drug manufacturers to provide proof of the effectiveness and safety of their drugs before approval, required drug advertising to disclose accurate information about side effects, and stopped cheap generic drugs being marketed as expensive drugs under new trade names as new "breakthrough" medications. Edward Breck, CEO of John Breck, Inc. claimed that government regulation wasn't necessary because manufacturers would be "foolhardy not to carefully formulate and test the product to all practicable lengths before asking for consumer acceptance."
  • In 1963, the Glass Container Manufacturers Association warned that passage of the Equal Pay Act was so burdensome that employers "may stop hiring women altogether. If that happens, pretty soon women would be right back in the place some men think they never should have left."
  • In 1970, the American Automobile Association warned that if Congress enacted the auto emission requirements in the Clear Air Act, auto companies "would be forced to shut down."
  • In 1971, bemoaning the evils of mandatory seat belts and headrests, Lee Iacocca, president of Ford Motor Company, told President Nixon that "the shoulder harnesses, the headrests are complete wastes of money... You can see that safety has killed all of our business."
  • In 1973, three years after Congress passed and President Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce continued to argue that it was unnecessary. It claimed that "Employers do not deliberately allow work conditions to exist which cause injury or illness. Safety is good business."
  • In 1987, as Congress was considering laws allowing employees to take unpaid leaves to deal with the medical needs of family members, John Sloane Jr., president of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, warned that they are "the greatest threats to small business in America." Six years later, Congress passed the Family Medical Leave Act.
  • In the late 1980s, the National Association of Manufacturers opposed government efforts to prevent acid rain. "The present state of knowledge on the causes and effects of acid rain is, at best, ambiguous," the lobby group claimed. It also warned that, if adopted, the legislation would achieve "the dubious distinction of moving the United States towards the status of a second-class industrial power by the end of the century."
  • In 1990, the U.S. Business Roundtable warned that if Congress adopted proposed amendments to the Clear Air Act "a minimum of 200,000 (plus) jobs will be quickly lost, with plants closing in dozens of states. This number could easily exceed 1 million jobs -- and even 2 million jobs."
  • In 2004, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued that minimum wage laws "ignore the principles of free market economies" and "prevent businesses from making profits."
  • In 2010, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and every Republican member of Congress said that the Financial Reform Bill was a "job killer." Chamber CEO Tom Donahue said the bill "exacerbates uncertainties for Main Street and America's job creators."

These are but a tiny sample of corporate America's persistent and misleading "cry wolf" warnings about government regulations that most Americans today accept as common sense efforts to protect consumers, workers, and the environment from business greed or indifference.

Fortunately, the general public, and many conscientious elected officials, ignored businesses' false warnings and adopted laws and regulations that have made America a safer, more prosperous, and more humane society. If Issa's ideological predecessors had let business lobby groups decide what regulations they wanted:

  • Child labor wouldn't have been outlawed and 12-year-olds would still be working 12 hour shifts in dangerous industries as they still do today in countries with fewer labor laws.
  • The Minimum wage (FLSA) and unemployment insurance would never have happened and millions more would be in poverty. Industry groups have opposed every increase in minimum wage in 70 years -- at federal, state and local level.
  • The clean air act wouldn't have passed and cities would be enshrouded in smog and childhood asthma levels would be even higher than there are today.
  • Regulations to prevent Acid Rain wouldn't have been adopted and sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide would poison our streams, kill trees and cause lung problems in children. We wouldn't have banned Ozone-depleting CFC's and more people would get skin cancer.
  • The Federal Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act wouldn't have passed and new drugs wouldn't be tested before they went to market, there would be no labeling describing ingredients and side effects. Dangerous drugs like thalidomide could still come to market.
  • The Federal Mine Safety Act wouldn't have passed and even more miners would have died, or been injured in underground mines.
  • Many more textile workers would have contracted Brown lung disease without cotton dust regulations
  • More people would have died in traffic accidents if seat belts, head rests and air bags weren't required

And this is just a partial list. There would be no labeling requirements to show nutritional content of the foods we eat or warning labels on cigarettes. Dangerous chemicals like asbestos, DDT, PCB's, lead and many other toxins would still be in our workplaces, homes and communities. There's be no Clean Water Act or Truth in Lending Act. More people would die from Salmonella or E-Coli poisoning from the foods we eat.

Issa is only the latest corporate lackey to practice crony capitalism. What's needed is a different version -- responsible capitalism -- that recognizes the balance between business profits and the public interest.