“Theoretically, government and its laws should be able to curb corporate environmental abuse. But corporations have become so powerful that they are in many ways uncontrollable and largely unaccountable. Armed with lobbyists, lawyers, public relations, advertising, and product defense firms, and for-hire scientists, large corporations and their trade associations often can buy and shape how the laws and regulations are written, who enforces them, and how they are enforced.”
– Philip & Alice Shabecoff (2010, p. 124)
Money is power in a capitalist society, and unfortunately, those polluting the environment have plenty of both. With sales of at least $650 billion in 2010 and climbing, the chemical industry has plenty of weight to throw around. But even this figure underestimates the beast we’re up against, because the companies making chemicals are only part of the equation. There’s also all the companies using them and the companies that produce toxic byproducts as a result of their commercial activity.
Consider the energy sector of our economy, a behemoth that produces trillions of dollars in revenue each year. This also happens to be one of the dirtiest sectors: Most energy is generated either through nuclear fusion or fossil fuels, both of which leave a trail of toxic byproducts in their wake. Then there are all the cement factories, the auto makers, and the various other companies whose activities leave a toxic trail in their wake. In fact, much of our economic output pollutes the environment in one way or another, which is precisely why there are so many powerful entities with a vested interest in chemical pollution.
The recent dumbfounding decision by the Supreme Court to treat corporations like people and allow them unlimited lobbying rights has only increased the power of special interests, all but turning our democracy into a plutocracy. Corporations (which, unlike ordinary people, have vast amounts of money and resources to spend) can now lobby government to an unlimited degree. The chemical industry spends millions of dollars each year buying the favor of government officials, both directly and through their numerous trade associations and lobbying groups. This means that chemical companies largely write the regulations governing them, and whenever the Congress or Senate introduces a bill to study toxins or regulate them, the industry is usually able to kill it through their friends in government.
How companies manipulate government to get what they want
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the inner workings of government, a lobbyist is someone whose job is basically to talk to lawmakers, wine and dine them, and steer them in the direction of certain policy decisions. Many lobbyists are former Congressman, Senators, or staffers, so they are familiar with the inner workings of government and the people who work there.
Trying to influence lawmakers is perfectly legal; after all, the purpose of a democracy is that those elected serve the needs and interests of their constituents. But whereas you and I can’t very easily work ourselves into inner government circles or pay someone to follow each Congressman or woman around each day and talk to them about everything we want, large corporations can. In fact, many major industries employ more lobbyists than there are lawmakers, especially when important legislation is being considered. The chemical industry is one of these major lobbying groups, and the energy sector lobby is even bigger still.
These groups also have at their disposal an army of lawyers to look over each bill and tweak the language in a way desirable to the companies they represent. They might strike certain language or add clauses that allow for backdoors and exemptions from regulations. They also work to write bills in a way that will funnel as much government money as possible into the hands of their clients. (Farm subsidies are a perfect example of this.) Many of these revisions are snuck into the language of a bill at the last minute, and with many bills running several hundred pages of legal language, it’s safe to say that most legislators voting for a bill don’t even have a good handle on all that’s inside it. (Do you carefully read each terms of agreement you’re made to approve when signing up for something on the Internet? Neither do elected officials go line by line with their lawyers over 700 pages of a legal document.)
This means each vote is largely taken on faith that what lawmakers are trying to do is actually captured within the legal language of the bill. This is why even well-meaning legislation often ends up failing at its intended purpose. By the time the lobbyists are through with it, it’s filled with a hundred legal loopholes that somehow benefit the companies it is intended to tamp down on. Consider the fight over Obama’s health care bill. I’m sure the legislation started out with good intent, but by the time lobbyists were through with it, it ended up this Frankenstein monster of half-measures that will no doubt benefit the industry in the end while making health care more expensive. Sadly, I don’t think it’s possible to do any of the things that need to be done on health care in today’s political climate.
Businesses also lobby legislators with cold hard cash by giving money to their campaign funds or by bribing them with gifts like free meals or lavish trips. They don’t call it bribing of course; it’s always wrapped up under the pretense of “official business” (come bring your family to Hawaii with us and we’ll spend one morning discussing the state of health care). But the effect is the same: funnel money and favors toward lawmakers who will then return the favor by introducing bills, listening to our needs, and voting in our favor.
The end result is that the voice of democracy is seriously distorted. Corporations get much of what they want and largely control the operations of government itself, whereas the average American gets screwed. His voice and his interests take a back seat to those of Big Business.