Breaking corporate control


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Today marks the opening of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — a new regulatory body intended to give consumers a voice against powerful financial firms.

But the present version of the bureau is poised to become a substantially declawed version of the one originally proposed in the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The weakening of the consumer bureau is just one example of the amount of power corporate interests have in our political system, a level of influence that dwarfs the average voter and even the average politician. Efforts to reform government need to tackle this problem instead of simply capitalizing on antigovernment fervor by cutting regulation and bureaucracy.

The Dodd-Frank Act was the congressional action that many Americans had been waiting for. According to a recent Pew Poll, 63 percent of voters want stronger oversight of the financial sector, and 74 percent are in favor of "having a single agency with the single mission of protecting consumers from financial companies." How can the Dodd-Frank bill and the consumer bureau be so weakened in spite of the support of public opinion?

Here's a hint: Corporations don't like it. At a congressional hearing earlier this year, J.P. Morgan Chase representatives argued that the Dodd-Frank bill's increased oversight on financial derivatives would be bad for financial markets. Corporate lobby groups repeatedly railed against the act's whistleblower provisions. The financial industry spent $474 million on lobbying in 2010.

Congressional Republicans then vowed they would reject any of President Obama's consumer-bureau nominees until the agency was weakened and subjected to the congressional appropriations process. Through the funding process, Republicans have blocked or weakened other parts of the bill.

The debate over the Dodd-Frank bill doesn't paint a picture of too much government but rather, too much corporate influence in government.

Recent Supreme Court decisions have institutionalized the influence of private actors. The Citizens United decision ensured anonymity for corporate spending on political ads, and the nullification of Arizona's campaign-finance law stifled a state's effort to level the playing field for candidates running against corporate-backed opponents. These laws make it easier for corporations to exercise power over governing.

The lack of conviction in President Obama's toothless lobbyist crackdown shows how difficult it is to change this deeply entrenched culture. If a few corporations can help to block legislation supported by a majority of citizens, they are undermining democracy.

There's a wave of opposition to centralized power among elements of the electorate, particularly the federal government. I agree that a state that sanctions torture, extrajudicial killings of American citizens, and warrant-less wiretapping is a severe threat to our civil liberties and an overreach of government power. But revering big businesses as "job creators" and seeing regulatory bodies like the consumer bureau as the enemy bolsters the disproportionate power of corporate interests within the state. Centralized power is as much a problem in private hands as in those of government.

Expecting self-interested private firms to support the public good is absurd. But this proves the absurdity of believing that simply telling government to get out of the way and make room for the private sector is going to make life better for the average American family. It will only help the people and organizations that can spend the most. Until we acknowledge and fix this problem, we are not going to fix our government.

A muscular consumer bureau is a good first step.

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