THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Danger of Backsliding

One of the most fundamental truisms of politics and policy is that old saying about democracy requiring eternal vigilance. In a political system like ours dominated by big money and the lobbyists that money hires, that is especially true, even in years when Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House.

Beyond the raw power and connections of big business lobbyists, two of the biggest reasons we still have to worry about this even with Democrats in control are that (a) a lot of these things are done behind the scenes, out of the public spotlight, while other big issues are being intensely debated; and (b) the free market ideology that has come to dominate even in a lot of Democratic circles.

Three huge examples of major backsliding on economic issues have come to light over the last couple of weeks brought on by this combination of lobbyist influence, free market economic theory, and the ability to quietly push for things in the dead of night while health care is taking most of the media's -- and the progressive movement -- attention. Any of these issues would be easy to win on if the media covered them and/or the progressive movement focused their fire on them, but with health care taking up so much bandwidth, it's harder to fight these things.

The three issues are:

  • Weakening investor protections. In 2002, after the corporate corruption scandals of Enron, and so many other companies had dominated the headlines for months, the Bush administration was forced to accept the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, a modest but important clean-up of accounting rules providing some basic protections for investors in publicly traded companies. Ever since we got Sarbanes-Oxley passed into law, corporate America has been trying to repeal or erode it, and investor/consumer/corporate responsibility advocates have managed to hold them off even in the dark years of Republican control of everything (both houses of Congress and the White House, 2003-2007). Now it looks like the business lobbyists and their friends in Congress and the White House are coming dangerously close to eroding these protections by exempting "small" businesses from a requirement that mandates audits of internal controls. The problem is the rather outrageous definition of "small" in this proposal: any business with a market capitalization of $75 million or under. That's a pretty big business to be exempting from audits.

  • Weakening offshore tax crackdowns. As David Sirota points out here, another rare progressive victory over Bush and congressional Republicans in 2002 was banning federal contracts from going to companies that engage in the practice of buying a P.O. Box in Bermuda and filing their taxes from there to avoid paying U.S. taxes. Rosa DeLauro brilliantly maneuvered a vote on this provision on the House floor, and too many Republicans were afraid to vote against it, so Bush and his corporate allies were forced into accepting something they hated.
    Now, apparently at the behest of the Obama administration, this provision is close to being repealed. So much for being deficit hawks.

  • The third problem provision (also written about by David Sirota, and talked about here in a great segment by Rachel Maddow) involves big corporate interests lobbying against language in a customs bill that would ban the import of products made with slave labor, or forced child labor. Seriously: businesses are opposing anything that would keep them from selling products made by little kids forced to work in factories, and by slaves. This is like something out of the 1800s. But the free trade uber alles cheerleaders believe that any restrictions on trade, for any reasons whatsoever, is bad news, so we will have to watch this like a hawk to keep it from getting through. We outlawed slavery in this country in 1865, and child labor forty years after that, but we will let other countries who do it sell their products here with no penalty? Sounds like some serious backsliding to me.

The first two items I mentioned were quite possibly the only two positive policy changes that happened in economic issues in the six years that Bush and the Republicans controlled Congress. There might have been others, but honestly I can't think of any. That the Obama administration is now apparently involved in trying to roll them back is a shame and an outrage, and a reflection that the free market religion that dominates the Republican Party is also way too strong on the Democratic Party as well.

Even as we are closing out the health care debate, progressives need to keep our eye on these lower profile issues, and work with progressive Democrats in Congress to stop this terrible backsliding.