WASHINGTON ― The discussion at the Center for American Progress’ “Ideas Conference” on Tuesday stuck mostly to the conventional Democratic script. But not Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Other lawmakers and policy experts gathered at Washington’s Four Seasons Hotel focused on defending the Barack Obama-era status quo against President Donald Trump’s onslaught, rather than on proposing ambitious new ideas.
Warren’s speech stood out, both for its unabashed populism and for its bold proposals for rooting out the influence of money in politics and breaking up the business monopolies.
In her scathing remarks, Warren portrayed a Washington compromised by the largesse of big corporations and the ultra-rich long before Trump came to power.
“Over the past few decades, money has fundamentally re-ordered Washington. Money slithers through Washington like a snake,” she said.
The former bankruptcy law professor and originator of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau decried the “armies of lobbyists” that blanket the capital like a “plague of locusts” to shape legislation and the corporations that “bury public servants in an avalanche of nonsense” in their efforts to undermine regulations.
She made an equally impassioned case against the current president, arguing that Trump had brought Beltway sleaze to new heights ― and violated key campaign promises in the process.
“The president did not invent these problems but, boy, has he made them worse,” Warren said.
“The CEO of Exxon Mobil is now the secretary of state. Goldman Sachs has enough people in the White House to open up a new branch office,” she quipped, drawing laughs from the crowd. “Do you get the feeling that if Bernie Madoff weren’t in prison, that he’d be in charge of the SEC right now?”
“It is time to do what Teddy Roosevelt did: pick up the antitrust stick again. The stick has collected some dust, but the laws are still on the books.”
The policy component of Warren’s remarks addressed two main issues: eradicating the corrupting influence of money in politics and breaking up the modern-day monopolies that are padding their profits while distorting the economy.
Like many other Democrats, Warren called for overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that has allowed unlimited corporate cash to flow into the electoral system, as well as amending the Constitution to prevent such a decision from ever being made again.
Warren went further though, implying she sees state- and city-level experiments with public campaign financing as a critical part of the answer to cleaning up the corruption invited by massive private donations. She also called for ending the revolving door between industry and government jobs and for reforming the regulatory process to limit corporate influence.
Some of her proposals were clearly Trump-specific, including legislation that would compel the president and vice president to place their assets in a blind trust. Presidents and vice presidents have, for decades, voluntarily sold off any active business holdings, if they had them, and ceded control over their assets to an independent trust to avoid conflicts of interest. (Although Trump has handed over day-to-day management of his business empire to two sons, he has refused to sell his business interests or place his assets in a blind trust.)
But it was Warren’s detailed indictment of corporate consolidation and proposed crackdown on modern-day trusts that made her remarks truly novel for a senator speaking at an event sponsored by the think tank most closely associated with Democratic Party leadership.
“In every corner of our economy, competition is increasingly choked off,” she said. “Airlines, banking, health care, pharma, agriculture, telecom, tech — in industry after industry, a handful of giant corporations control more and more and compete less and less.”
When companies control so much market share that they no longer worry about competition, consumers are hit with higher prices, innovators cannot make it to market and workers’ wages suffer, according to Warren.
Long known for demanding that the big banks be broken up, Warren invoked the legacy of the trust-busting president, Theodore Roosevelt, in extending her call to other industries. The Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general all have the legal power to force mega-corporations to split up where there is a reasonable case that they are obstructing real competition, she said.
“It is time to do what Teddy Roosevelt did: pick up the antitrust stick again. The stick has collected some dust, but the laws are still on the books,” Warren said.
There is virtually no chance of Warren’s proposals becoming law while Republicans control the White House and Congress.
Under Democratic rule, many of her ideas would undoubtedly be a tough sell as well based on recent experience. Critics accuse Obama of doing little to curb monopoly growth during his tenure, for example.
But Warren is keenly attuned to progressive grassroots forces, who are demanding dramatic solutions to the challenges of concentrated wealth and rising inequality. Rather than focus too closely on Trump’s personal flaws and his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, these liberal activists believe that exposing him as a corporate shill and offering a positive vision for economic growth are the only ways to defeat the GOP at the ballot box. When Democrats regain power again, these activists will have sweeping policy plans ready to be enacted and grassroots energy backing them.
Their proposed new path for the party is supported by some poll evidence. Forty-two percent of Americans who voted for both Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 believe that the policies of current congressional Democrats favor the wealthy, according to an April survey conducted by the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA. Just 21 percent of that group see Trump’s policies in an equally dim light ― so far.
In devoting her remarks to the often overlooked but hugely consequential field of antitrust policy, in particular, Warren is helping to ease ideas germinating in think tanks into the political mainstream.
For years now, lax enforcement of antitrust laws has allowed smaller numbers of companies to dominate various industries. The total value of corporate mergers and acquisitions was greater in 2015 than any previous year on record. Some two-thirds of the 900 U.S. industries tracked by The Economist are now concentrated in the hands of fewer companies than they were in 1997.
This wave of consolidation has revived interest in antitrust regulations in liberal wonk circles, urged on by former business journalist Barry C. Lynn, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Markets program.
Whether or not she achieves a fraction of her most ambitious proposals, Warren could at least expand the bounds of acceptable political discourse so that more moderate ideas seem reasonable by comparison. On Tuesday, she encouraged her listeners to count their blessings: The public institutions needed to make the government accountable to the people still exist, even if they face growing threats.
“Concentrated money and concentrated power, they influence nearly every decision made in this town,” Warren said. “But capture is not complete ― at least not yet.”