David Sirota is the author of Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government —And How We Take It Back. This article appeared in The Denver Post.
We all know that special interests talk out of both sides of their mouths whenever they are trying to buy public policy. But in recent weeks, we have seen glaring examples of sheer hypocrisy that are eye-popping, even by Washington standards. On issues from pharmaceutical prices to democracy to trade, lobbyists are stepping all over their own rhetoric in attempts to keep Congress from embracing a populist, middle-class agenda.
The first example came when corporations recently pulled out all the stops against the Employee Free Choice Act, the legislation that strengthens workers' democratic rights to form unions. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a press release claiming it opposed the bill because it supposedly "undermines the fundamental concept of our workplace democracy." Yet, just days later, the president of the Business Roundtable attacked legislation strengthening company shareholders' ability to vote down exorbitant executive pay packages, saying that "corporations were never designed to be democracies." Yes, Corporate America wants Congress to believe that it is worried about workers' democratic rights at the very same time it is telling shareholders (the owners of the companies) that they should have no democratic rights at all.
On international trade, it's the same thing. With a new Wall Street Journal poll showing that Americans are more skeptical of America's job-destroying trade policy than ever, the Financial Times recently reported that CEOs are pressuring Congress to drop any and all efforts to place basic labor standards in new trade pacts. "Top business leaders warned that placing strict rules on working conditions in bilateral trade agreements would threaten the U.S.’s ability to make pacts with emerging economies," the Times story said, quoting one CEO "saying that emerging economies could not be expected to have the same labor standards as developed and fully industrialized nations."
Of course, the hypocrisy is that you don't hear any of the same complaints about the thousands of pages of strict patent, intellectual property and copyright protections rammed into these deals—protections that, for instance, artificially inflate the prices of life-saving medicines in the developing world.
The selective arguments expect lawmakers to arrive at the absurd conclusion that preventing countries from enslaving children or violently crushing unions is less important and far more difficult than preventing countries from producing counterfeit medicines or pirated DVDs.
Not surprisingly, the pharmaceutical industry has been one of the strongest proponents of these unfair trade deals. Drug industry lobbyists tell Congress that more trade deals are necessary to help consumers all over the world gain expanded access to medicine. Yet, at the same time, the Associated Press recently reported, "the pharmaceutical lobby pushed back against a renewed effort in the U.S. Congress to pass a law enabling American consumers to buy cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and other countries." The bipartisan legislation would allow individuals and pharmacies to order lower-priced FDA-approved drugs from 19 countries.
The industry claims its opposition is motivated by safety concerns, even though other industrialized countries that have long engaged in drug importation have reported no safety issues, and even though our own FDA told Congress it could not produce even one example of counterfeit medicines harming American consumers who already travel to Canada to purchase medicines. The real motivation is obvious: Drug companies want free trade deals to expand their patent reach in other countries, but ultra-protectionist measures here at home—all in order to keep consumers paying inflated prices.
What's troubling about this behavior is not that Corporate America pursues profit at all cost, but the admission of corruption inherent in the utter disregard for consistency. When moneyed interests no longer even hesitate to contradict themselves in presenting arguments to Congress, they signal an assumption that hypocritical policy rationales can now be entirely trumped by big campaign contributions. And with Washington policymakers happily embracing such dishonesty, the problem for the rest of America is that this assumption is entirely accurate.