Before the November elections, progressives like Markos Moulitsas wanted “more and better Democrats” in Congress and the White House. Obviously, we’ve done pretty well electing more Democrats. Now we have to work on the better—representatives who aren’t slaves to corporate paymasters, and who understand that their bosses are their constituents, not K Street lobbyists.
The Nation’s William Greider, writing on Alternet, gives examples of this far-too-common toadyism and hipocrisy, and offers solutions to growing a better, bolder, truly progressive Democratic party.
The governing party faced an awkward dilemma. People were hurting and furious at the government’s generous bailouts for banks. But how could the Democrats do something for the folks without upsetting their friends and patrons in the banking industry? Democrats think they found a way. They are enacting a series of measures described as “breakthrough” reform and “unprecedented” defeat for the bankers. Only these achievements are more accurately understood as “reform lite.” The house is on fire and Democrats brought a garden hose.
The Democratic Party is changing in some promising ways, but what’s impressive is how much it has not changed. Does that sound harsh? I am relying on private judgments from Washington players regarded as the “white hats” on this subject — consumer lobbyists and other public-interest reformers, who for years have labored in frustration to enact laws that would restore equity and honest relationships to the out-of-control financial system. These organizations mostly endorse the Democrats’ efforts and celebrate their “victories.” But a few minutes of private conversation reveals their doubt and disappointment. “It’s a good bill,” they will say, then after enumerating the shortcomings add, “It’s better than nothing.”
The straightforward way to stop usury is to enact a hard legal limit on the interest rates creditors can charge borrowers. In the House, several legislators introduced interest-rate caps, but party leaders would not let the issue get a roll call vote. Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York and co-sponsors proposed an interest-rate cap of 18 percent, the same ceiling enacted years ago for credit unions. “Offering the amendment raised a lot of anxiety on the part of a lot of people,” Hinchey said.
“It was withdrawn because it had no possibility of success and it would have put a number of people in a tough situation. We had to back off.”
A roll call on usury would have compelled legislators to choose between their constituents and their bankers. Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland proposed a tougher ceiling on interest rates, but the House rules committee rejected her amendment. “Our constituents are so angry with the banks,” she observed, “siding with credit-card companies would not be helpful to me, and I expect that’s true in other districts.” Bankers are contributors, so this is what members call “a money vote.” A consumer lobbyist explained. “Let’s face it,” he said. “The main reason lots of members get on the House Financial Services Committee is because they want to raise money from the financial industry.”
In the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, the majority whip who rounds up votes for the party, introduced his own usury bill — a cap of 36 percent including the non-interest fees and charges. Durbin’s bill also empowered state governments to set lower limits. The Consumer Federation of America endorsed it, but the consumer lobbyists asked Durbin not to have a roll call on his measure because it might reveal their weakness.
Nevertheless, the redoubtable Bernie Sanders of Vermont demanded a vote on his bill — an interest-rate cap of 15 percent.
“When banks are charging 30 percent interest rates, they are not making credit available,” Sanders said. “They are engaged in loan sharking.” Sanders lost, 33 to 60. Twenty-one Democrats voted with the sharks. Senators Carper, Cantwell, Byrd, Bingaman, Bayh, Baucus, Akaka, Warner, Tester, Stabenow, Specter, Shaheen, Pryor, Ben Nelson, Bill Nelson, Murray, Lincoln, Landrieu, Kaufman, Johnson, Hagan.