THE BLOG
03/10/2014 02:45 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2014

Washington's Multiple Hostage-Takings, Betrayals & The TPP Corporate Power Grab: Failure of Political Duopoly Cries for Alternatives

Throughout a 40-year arc of wealth and power shift upward, the Washington political duopoly has continuously abandoned working people, serving their corporate financiers instead.

For decades Republican and corporate allies have sought to gut the working class, wages, unions, democracy and government in the name of gaining and retaining political power. "Deficit reduction" and "revenue-neutral spending" are Republican euphemisms for the economic evisceration of government and of 99 percent of the population, in service of continual tax cuts and subsidies for wealthy elites and corporate plutocrats. Any excuse for hostage-taking has become occasion to cut social spending, including pensions, health care, unemployment and job supports, food stamps, etc. Workers have not enjoyed the rewards for their increased productivity over the past three decades, as wages have been held flat.

Assaults on voting rights, workers' rights, religious freedom, economic equity and regulatory oversight have become the norm, to the point of disruption and paralyzation of the civil order. Constitutional freedoms are compromised almost beyond recognition with the elimination of habeas corpus, due process, privacy, rule of Law, the imprisonment of whistleblowers, and NSC-sanctioned spying on U.S. citizens under the guise of fighting terrorism.

Corporate media cites "left-right" politics as source of Washington gridlock, when almost anything that passes for debate in media and in the halls of Congress today is limited to the center-right-to-far-right spectrum. Representing the standard corporate view, "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer recently depicted resistance to cutting "entitlements" (earned benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare) as a "far-left" position.

Republican goals perpetuate the 30+ year race to the financial bottom for the 99 percent majority comprised of the working poor and largely disappeared middle class who have been economically eviscerated by concerted efforts to redistribute evermore wealth upward to satisfy plutocrats' unquenchable greed.

Simultaneously, Democratic party leadership have chosen allegiance to the corporate-money-power equation. Too often they have abandoned all but the pretense of progressive policies, bargaining away the common good with every Republican hostage-taking/extortion over budget deals. Even while controlling three branches of government, Democratic leadership ceded power to a Republican minority, e.g., by failing to redress filibuster rules. For the umpteenth time, on Feb. 6 minority Senate Republicans used the filibuster to block a vote to extend jobless benefits to millions of unemployed.

Robert Reich relates the upshot in the documentary film "Inequality for All." Quoting a recent study by his Berkeley colleague Emmanuel Saez, Reich notes that the top 1 percent has captured about 95 percent of the income gains since the 2008 recession ended. In fact, "The top 1 percent are doing even better than they did before the Great Recession, better than they have done since 1928." The 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million put together. Wal-Mart heirs are major shareholders, holding more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans combined.

A primary tactic of American corporations to preserve their increasingly huge profits and the political- money-power nexus, has been to squeeze wages, keeping payrolls down. "Most Americans are on a downward escalator," says Reich, as "median wage in the United States, adjusted for inflation, keeps on dropping." The consequent wealth concentration at the top coupled with worker insecurity are symptoms of economic crisis, as well as a crisis of democracy.

Racism and elitism are the unspoken underpinnings of wealth inequity, as cutting taxes, in dog-whistle political code, serves the upward wealth transfer, away from "undeserving" minorities and "the lazy poor," Ian Haney Lopez relates in his new book, DogWhistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class. Covert racism "is being used to fool a lot of whites into voting for Republicans whose main allegiance is to corporate interests... this is about rac[ism] as it wrecks the whole middle class."

To the rhetorical question, "Who is actually looking out for the American worker?" Reich responds, "Nobody."

Budget-Making Held Hostage

Washington hostage-taking followed by budget-dealing driven by Republican goals of deficit reduction and so-called "revenue neutral" spending sets the stage for expanding income inequality. Every proposed "grand bargain" has been a prescription for preservation of tax breaks and subsidies for the wealthy at the expense of working people who bear the brunt of social spending cuts.

Professor of Economics Jack Rasmus writes about the 2011 hostage-taking in the form of the debt limit standoff, followed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 that cut $1 trillion in discretionary social spending programs, mostly education.

Typical of political posturing and manipulation, such spending cuts are generally deferred until non-election years. Thus, with the failure of a 2012 congressional "super committee" to agree on budget cuts, $1.2 trillion of discretionary cuts (half defense) called the "sequester" were deferred until 2013.

The 2013 fiscal cliff deal prioritized making the bulk of the Bush tax cuts permanent, at an effective cost of close to $4 trillion over 10 years (not taking into account inflation), even as taxes were raised on wage earners. The Sunlight Foundation reported that lobbyists for big oil, mining companies, railroads and US multinationals were all able to hold onto their tax breaks, with tens of billions of dollars in fossil fuel industry subsidies alone, reducing revenue. President Obama has reportedly passed larger tax cuts for the rich than George W. Bush ever did.


Republicans
eagerly embraced five percent across-the-board sequester cuts, capping discretionary spending extending to 2021, primarily as means to continuous slashing of social programs. While the full sequester spending cuts of $1.2 trillion of non-defense spending began in March 2013, Rasmus notes that defense sequester spending cuts were offset in various ways by the Obama administration with congressional concurrence, during 2013. Both the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate proposed budgets that effectively restored defense sequester cuts, calling for increasing Pentagon spending to $552 billion in 2014, surpassing the 2013 level.

The next budget-by-committee hostage ploy was triggered in the fall of 2013 in order to bring an end to the Republican-instigated two-week-plus shutdown of the federal government. The budget proposed by the 'Joint Congressional Committee' chaired by Republican House leader Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray was branded a fete of smoke-and-mirrors by Rasmus. The ostensible $31 billion in non-defense social spending increases were negated by such things as an increase in consumer fees, cuts to federal worker and veterans' pensions and unemployment benefits, as well as government taxes on airline travel. The net effect on the working class is a -$20 billion spending decrease instead of the $31 billion spending increase.

Rasmus notes that the $25 billion in cuts to unemployment benefits is about the same amount in restored defense spending cuts -- thus, the unemployed have effectively paid for the continuation of corporate defense contracts at prior levels. The Ryan-Murray deal effectively reversed the sequester defense spending cuts -- instead of $498 of decreased defense spending in 2014, Ryan-Murray set Pentagon spending at $520.5 billion.

Reiterates Rasmus, the deal "promotes the interests of defense corporations, the Pentagon, and the wealthy -- at the direct expense of millions of U.S. government workers, millions more unemployed, veterans, retirees, and tens of millions of Americans on food stamps."

The Military Industrial Complex is a clear winner in all budget dealing, demonstrated again by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's 2014 proposed Pentagon budget. While military personnel, pay and benefits will be cut, including housing, health-care benefits, and benefits of commissary shopping, Pentagon spending will increase $115 billion over and above sequester spending caps. Defense contractors were the clear beneficiaries. Even as the plan was presented, it was reported, "The stocks of all but three major defense contractors hit a 52-week high... and the stock price of Lockheed Martin, the nation's largest defense contractor, hit an all-time high..."

Contrary to Washington spin touting the end of efforts for a "grand bargain," Rasmus assessed that the late-2013 budget deal in fact reflected a "grand bargain... achieved in stages, piecemeal." Consistent with Washington posturing, he forecasts that "entitlement" spending of Social Security and Medicare will not be addressed until after the 2014 elections. Proposed as a tradeoff for a tax increase concession by Republicans, President Obama's 2014 budget calls for $620 billion in Social Security and Medicare cuts over the next decade. Ironically, Rep. John Boehner, speaker for Republican hostage takers, protested that Republicans are being "held hostage for more tax hikes."

Democratic Leadership Abandons Progressive Principles, Capitulates to Republican Austerity

The "Big Lie" propagated by Republicans and echoed by too many Washington Democrats is that out-of-control deficits demand austerity economics with spending cuts on the backs of the working class, even as subsidies and tax cuts are extended for multi-billion-dollar corporations and their CEOs. Resulting deficit reduction exacerbates real problems of "too few jobs, lousy wages, and slow growth," notes former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Perversely, efforts to reduce the deficit decrease demand, further slowing the economy into recession while increasing the deficit.

The second Big Lie cited by Reich is promotion of evermore tax cuts for ostensibly wealthy "job creators," even as wealth concentrated at the top eviscerates the purchasing power of the majority of working people, those who could actually boost the economy had their wages kept pace with productivity.

Even as the Democratic leadership postures as champions of the working people, they have proven willing to deal away real health care and retirement programs for working people, e.g., they previously proposed incremental cuts to Medicare and Social Security by implementing raised eligibility age and reduced benefits of Medicare, and "Chained CPI" reductions to annual Social Security cost-of-living adjustments (COLA). Where Republicans seek wholesale austerity for the masses, Democrats concede austerity by increments.

Amid reports that a majority of Congress members are now millionaires, Washington media and power elites follow the script of "Fix-the-Debt" corporate plutocrats who promote upward wealth transfer. Targeted are programs that serve a working class devastated by an economic crash precipitated by the same greedy class.

Sunday morning talking heads regurgitate corporate talking points ad nauseum. Sermonized David Gregory on Meet the Press: "... Democrats want more revenue, Republicans want to deal with the entitlements, which are really cannibalizing the budget." Amen, added Sen. Dick Durbin: Medicare is not financially sustainable, nor will Social Security be after 20 years. There is never a mention of permitting Medicare to negotiate bulk drug rates to save hundreds of billions of dollars over time, or the implementation of improved Medicare-for-All to shave another $400 billion in annual administrative costs. Washington elites are similarly mute about lifting the cap on taxable income for Social Security (which is funded separately, and does not add to the deficit) to make it solvent for the foreseeable future. On top of the loss of jobs, pensions, health care, and the long-term effects of flat wages on the majority, one-percenters continue to demand cuts and ultimately privatization of Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid - a further boon to Wall St.'s bottom line.

On the same Sunday morning program, correspondent Chuck Todd announced results of a NBC-Esquire study demonstrating that the current Congress does not represent the majority of the country -- a surprise perhaps to disconnected media, which does not escape most.

Serving primarily the Medical-Industrial Complex, both Republican and Democratic models of health care reform are built around the "free-market" centerpiece of profiteering commercial insurance denial managers who inflate administrative health costs approximately 30 percent (vs. 2-3 percent overhead of Medicare). Instead of a "choice" of insurers who game the system by the practice of "denial management," most would opt for a full "choice" of providers available with a Medicare-for-All model. If Democrats were smart about framing health care reform for the people (assuming that were their intent), they would call the Republicans' deficit bluff and promote universal improved Medicare-for-All that provides $400 billion annual deficit reduction, while coincidentally providing health care for all.

Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. cites the steady rightward movement of the Democratic Party since Ronald Reagan's presidency ( Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals). As the left adopted an increasingly defensive stance in response to the relentless Republican juggernaut since the '80s and '90s, Democrats and liberals have fixated on the immediate goal of electing Democrats, while increasingly embracing corporate financing. The administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama too often acquiesced to demands of Wall St. and the political right at the expense of working people and growing economic inequality. Reed cites the emerging faction of neoliberal Democrats who have joined business interests and Republicans to attempt the rollback of social protections and regulations won by the left since FDR promoted a "second Bill of Rights" in 1944 -- such rights as "adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment."

Trans-Pacific Partnership: The Grandaddy of Corporate Power Grabs

Demonstrated by numerous studies, most trade agreements have contributed to the modern contradiction of rising poverty and increased productivity.

Like NAFTA before it, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is more corporate power grab than trade deal. Perhaps not surprisingly, Republicans and the Democratic administration support Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority to pass the TPP without congressional oversight. Even as Republicans lamented that the president failed to push the TPP hard enough in the State of the Union address, the president endorsed "bipartisan trade promotion authority" -- also known as "fast track" that would bypass constitutional congressional oversight of treaties. He invoked the need "to protect our workers, protect our environment and open new markets" to U.S. goods -- Orwellian speak for a deal written by corporate lobbyists for the corporate bottom line, worded to bypass environmental and other regulations, while shipping more jobs offshore.

Investigative journalist David Cay Johnston observes that all "free trade" deals have resulted in the destruction of American jobs. He states, "No other modern country gives corporations the unfettered power found in America to gouge customers, shortchange workers, and erect barriers to fair play."

Johnston names Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker "a queen of corporate welfare" whose personal businesses have "supped with a big spoon at the public trough," while she touts the TPP as a "high-quality 21st-century trade agreement" designed to grow everyone's economy. Nevertheless, Johnston describes U.S. trade deals as "awful," the trade deal with China alone costing 2.8 million U.S. jobs.

The TPP is "a secret agreement that they want to ram through Congress with no debate," warns Johnston. "The global capitalist class see to it that these secretive deals are written in a way that they benefit, that workers in America have their wages driven down." Corporate lobbyists negotiate content expanding corporate powers in secret, while negotiations are deemed classified by the administration, barring Congress from viewing or discussing the content.

Contributing to secrecy, investigator Lee Fang writes that lobbying is going underground, as lobbyists hide by de-registering in order to exercise inordinate influence on Washington policy making.

So thoroughly have corporate interests hijacked and captured Washington.

Alternatives to the Tyranny of Two-Party Dominion

There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.
John Adams, among founding fathers who warned against a two-party system.

The two parties thoroughly control election process and access to it, down to the format of presidential debates. Wrote columnist John Raasch at the time of the 2004 Democratic Convention, "Adams feared big political parties for what they have become: polarizing institutions, rather than mediating ones. He did not trust concentration of power. He would wonder about states passing laws making it so difficult for other political organizations to get on ballots."

The central tension of the two-party doctrine identified by Lisa Jane Disch (The Tyranny of the Two-Party System) is the identification of popular sovereignty with choice, and subsequently limiting choice to one of two parties. Drawing an analogy between elections and markets, she writes, "America's faith in the two-party system begs the following question: Why do voters accept as the ultimate in political freedom a binary option they would surely protest as consumers?" The tyranny of the two-party system is "the construct that persuades United States citizens to accept two-party contests as a condition of electoral democracy."

Supplanting the Left-Right paradigm is the new paradigm of "You vs. Corporations," writes Barry Ritholtz. In short, both parties have been captured by big money interests, no longer representing the peoples' best interests. Washington has become a conduit for continued upward wealth redistribution, the preservation of corporate dominion, and the privatization-for-profit of every segment, including the Military Industrial, Medical Industrial and Prison Industrial Complexes.

Poll after poll demonstrates the deep unpopularity of the two political parties. In the cynical environment of corrupt money influence, it is necessary to do an end-run around influence-peddlers who sell out democracy. The disenfranchised majority can only make themselves heard by leaving and registering outside the two major political parties, either as independent voters, or with an alternative party. It has become necessary to build a movement outside the two-party structure, to advance principles and policies at the local and national levels promoting universal access to sustainable living standards, health care and education that support working people.

Progressives relegated to the political desert who have been consistently marginalized and sold out by Democratic party leadership, may choose to do movement-building within a party framework like that of the Green Party or Justice Party, which continue to organize in the states. All progressives can work together across party lines, as well as continuing to support Democrats who are truly progressive. The system should be opened up with reforms like instant runoff or fusion voting. A significant goal is the reframing and refuting of the false Beltway narrative that serves solely the minority elite.