Friday, March 03, 2006

Government of the people, for the people, by the people?

Is our government for the people, or for corporations, industry, and lobbyists?

Two news stories that raise this question

Story 1

Preliminary investigations into the disaster at West Virginia's Sago Mine are turning up serious questions—among them whether the federal government will mount an aggressive drive for the truth about the January 2 disaster, in which 12 coal miners were killed.

A heated political clash at a congressional hearing on mine safety Thursday suggests that the leadership necessary for an all-out effort is unlikely to come from the U.S. Congress or the Bush administration.

Story 2

Hundreds of warnings on food labels could vanish under a measure moving toward approval in the House.

The bill would stop states from adding warnings that are different from federal rules. States currently add hundreds of extra warnings, indicating the presence of arsenic in water, mercury in fish, alcohol in candy, pesticides in vegetables and more.

"This legislation could overturn 200 state laws -- laws that the American people rely on every day to ensure the safety of the food they eat," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said Thursday during House debate on the bill.

The food industry wants consistent warnings across state lines to reduce the cost of making many different labels. The industry has attracted broad support in the House, where a majority is co-sponsoring the bill.

And two book excerpts.

From Fast Food Nation (2002)

[I]t is a sad but undeniable fact that for the past two decades the right wing of the Republican Party has worked closely with the fast food industry and the meatpacking industry to oppose food safety laws, worker safety laws, and increases in the minimum wage. One of President George W. Bush's first acts in office was to rescind a new OSHA ergonomics standard that would have protected millions of workers from cumulative trauma injuries. The National Restaurant Association and the American Meat Institute applauded the move. The newly appointed chairman of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, which oversees all legislation pertaining to OSHA, is Representative Charles Norwood, a Republican from Georgia. During the 1990's Norwood sponsored legislation that would have prevented OSHA from inspecting unsafe workplaces or fining negligent employers. He has publicly suggested that some workers may actually be getting their repetitive stress injuries from skiing and playing too much tennis, not from their jobs.

One of the Bush administration's first food safety decisions was to stop testing the National School Lunch Program's ground beef for Salmonella. The meatpacking industry's lobbyists were delighted; they had worked hard to end the testing, which the industry considered expensive, inconvenient, and unnecesary. But consumer groups were outraged. In the ten months that the USDA had been testing ground beef intended for schoolchildren, roughly 5 million pounds were rejected because of Salmonella contamination. Three days after it was announced Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman said that she'd never authorized the new policy, reversed course, and promised that the school lunch program's Salmonella testing would continue.*
From Arrogant Capital (1994)

Almost before it started, Clinton's administration got in trouble for being too close to lobbyists, insiders, and power brokers. But attention has focused not only on these relations, but on the President's willingness to make deals with business and financial lobbies even more quickly than with labor, environmental, and minority groups. Changes like these tell the real story of the transition from "Old Democrat" to "New Democrat." What Clinton has done is to shift his party from so-called interest-group liberalism to "interest-group centrism" - away from the pro-spending liberal-type lobbies that represented people (labor, seniors, minorities, and urban) to a more upscale centrist (or center-right) group that represents money (multinational business, banks, investment firms, trial lawyers, trade interests, super-lobbyists, investors, the bond market, and so on). In short, the new power structure of special interest-group centrism. This is the ultimate triumph of Washington's interest-group ascendency: the party of the people can no longer be the party of the people.

Theoretically, a member of Congress represents a chunk of Missouri or Connecticut, and these voters alone get his or her mailings, satellite television feeds, and weekend visits: he or she is their representative. But the reality of what the average senator or congressman represents is a tailored slice of interest-group Washington: the party caucus or national committee, some contributors and polictical action committees, and a collection of think tanks and coalitions, associations, corporations, and unions. Grassroots party loyalty being so loose, 75 percent to 85 percent of senators and congressmen can use the right combination of interest-group backing to entrench themselves. to ordinary voters, representative government has become a shell - and behind it, only the influentials are truly represented.
Meanwhile, there is a bipartisan resistance in Congress against taking the steps necessary to ensure that our elected officals can not be bought and sold.

*Schlosser preceded this paragraph by pointing out that Democrats had also been guilty of this (although to a lesser extent), citing Clinton's ties to agribusiness and the Tyson family, and the FDA's slack efforts to investigate the safety of biotech foods and keep cattle remains out of cattle feed during Clinton's administration.

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