The past few weeks have shown us that true change is even more of a struggle than we might previously have believed. As if we needed any more bad news, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) yesterday announced he would vote against cloture on the critically important Employee Free Choice Act. Specter’s move makes it very unlikely that EFCA will pass as the Senate requires 60 votes to move forward on legislation. Specter’s move comes despite a prior vote for cloture in 2007 and despite the fact that a majority of Americans support the legislation, according to recent polls.
That Specter has caved to the business community on this issue is only the latest sign, not just of the influence the business and financial sectors continue to wield on our politics, but of the outrageously unfair playing field in this economy — both in terms of wealth and power. With one vote in the Senate, the business elites can put a stop to just about anything.
Last week’s revelations of the AIG bailout debacle really make me wonder why anyone continues to listen to the business community about anything concerning public policy. As has been widely noted, the government did nothing to stop AIG from awarding its derivatives-trading staff — the very people who took such tremendously irresponsible risks with other people’s money and helped implode the global economy — with huge bonuses. But, perhaps more sickeningly, they also used AIG as a shell bailout for other banks.
The biggest recipient of what veteran journalist Robert Scheer has called this “backdoor bailout” was Goldman Sachs, which also had the gall Tuesday to suggest that it could not live with the idea that Congress might actually want there to be some conditions under which their bailout money would be used. But it is clear that they, like much of the financial community, are just trying to scare Congress into backing off.
It is increasingly clear that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who helped orchestrate the AIG bailout, has completely failed to serve the public interest. Yet on Monday, Wall Street seemed to rally to his defense. Why? Because his new banking sector plan — in which the government will help private firms buy up toxic assets — is basically another huge bailout of Wall Street with no strings attached. As such, many critics – including Nobel laureate Paul Krugman – are skeptical it will actually address any of the fundamental issues that plague the banking sector.
I have thought for a while now that something in all of this would have to give. The outrage that the AIG bonuses touched off is, I believe, a sign of the growing frustration among many Americans with the dramatically uneven playing field in this economy — where corporate executives can fail their companies and all of us and still walk away with millions to spend lavishly, but lifelong employees of GM or Ford must give up their retirement benefits after years of dedication and service to their employers.
That one man, Specter, can hold up the most sweeping and important change in labor law since the original 1935 National Labor Relations Act was passed is absolutely staggering. I hope he is punished for this unconscionable vote in the 2010 elections. Yet his decision is a sign of “just how much the currently entrenched powers will fight to maintain their advantages,” as Christopher Hayes of The Nation noted yesterday. (It’s also yet another sign that the filibuster is an anti-democratic holdover standing in the way of change.)
What’s especially worrisome is the reality that, as Krugman has pointed out, if the new bank bailout fails it will likely undermine President Obama’s entire agenda. Depending when this happens, we could end up with more Republicans in the Senate in 2010, leaving us even worse off, given that the Republican Party seems prepared to allow absolutely nothing the president wants to happen.
It’s time for us to stop being afraid of business or right-wing extremists. President Obama’s priorities are truly too big to fail — they are that important. Yet we will get nowhere as a country if we do not make our outrage heard loud and clear. FDR publicly credited street protest and popular anger that was generated by social movements with creating the political environment in which Congress had to act in response to public pressure. That was what it took during the Great Depression to get major changes passed, and that’s what it will take to do it again. We need to make it impossible for our government not to listen and respond to the clamor for fundamental change.
Moments of crises such as these are the clearest test of our values. Those tests are everywhere right now for us, at national, state and local levels. Are we prepared to fight for what is right, or are we going to sit back and watch this powerful chance for change slip through our fingers?
Hugh Baran is a senior in Davenport College.