Loosening the Iron Grip of Corporate Power

Slowly and tentatively, in fits and starts yet with gradually gathering momentum, the iron grip that big corporate interests have on the throat of our democracy is loosening a little. Credit card companies got needless delays in the implementation of last year's reform bill, but they were forced to live with the outlawing of several of their most egregious practices. The insurance companies stripped the public option and some other great things out of health reform, but would have much preferred no bill at all, and certainly not one with new regulations and expectations about pre-existing conditions, lifetime caps, and recissions. The student loan industry got an outright smackdown which will result in more money for student loans. Now Wall Street is in a wild fight on the floor of the Senate, and Senators are either deserting them on major issues like auditing the Fed and consumer protection, or else Senators are having to make very uncomfortable votes on the big bankers' behalf. Progressives who want to rein in Wall Street's power are losing on some important issues, but we are making our mark on this bill, and setting the stage for future fights.

Check out Simon Johnson's brilliant post on the vote to break up the banks, suggesting that while they won this round, they may be facing their Waterloo soon. He points out that as things like Greece continue to happen that unravel the world financial situation further, that it will become harder and harder for the defenders of the big banks to hide. Although our side lost the vote, getting over half the Democrats, the Majority Leader, the 2nd ranking member of the leadership, and the ranking Republican on the Finance committee to all vote with us on a bill to fundamentally restructure the financial system was a pretty big deal. With Senators now all on the record as to whether they support the big banks or not, we have a lot of potential to do some damage in the coming elections. Even when we lose, we are getting these issues aired and getting people on the record. That's all to the good.

Let me throw a couple of electoral examples into the mix. Take Delaware, a pretty strongly Democratic state where a locally popular Republican congressman, Mike Castle, is a heavy favorite to win an open seat. He voted against breaking up the big banks. If the Democratic candidate Chris Coons makes this big issue in a pretty working class state, maybe Castle's easy victory gets a little- or even quite a bit- harder.

Or take an old home state of mine, Iowa, where voters have a very deep populist streak in them (see Harkin,Tom). Grassley, the ultimate incumbent insider, ranking member and former chair of the Finance committee, voted for letting the 6 biggest banks continue to own the equivalent of 63% of our GDP. Roxanne Conlin is a crusading lawyer who has made her living going after corporate malfeasance. Grassley is favored in this race, but his vote makes things a lot more interesting, especially for a strong populist like Roxanne.

Moving on to the issue of auditing the Federal Reserve. Yes, Sanders compromised on the issue. But most observers following the issue see this as a solid compromise, not a cave-in: we got something real out of the deal in terms of looking at what went down over the last few years. And the House language they go into conference on is very strong. Rumor has it that Geithner is still trying to figure out how to unravel this deal, so we can't take anything for granted, but we have the momentum on this issue, and winning on it would be a very big deal.

We're winning so far on the consumer protection agency; we're making progress on derivatives. It is the progressive amendments that have the wind at their back right now.

Look, I don't want to overstate this. This bank bill has some serious weaknesses in it, and with the Brown-Kaufman bank break-up amendment failing, it still doesn't solve the most central failing of our banking system. On health care and other issues, progressives have had our share of truly bitter and disappointing defeats. But progressive populist economics and a political strategy of challenging special interest corporate power is gaining traction right now. A citizen movement is bubbling up through the barriers of special interest concrete in our nation's Capitol that is not driven by tea party anti-government fervor, but by the hopes of regular folks who believe we can take our country back. Let's keep building on our momentum.

Cross-posted at OpenLeft.com

You can read all of my work on financial reform, health care and other topics at my home blog, OpenLeft.com.