Some advice for any young readers looking for their soulmate: Find a life partner who looks at you the way Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has looked at America’s CEOs, their three-martini lobbyists and their briefcases brimming with campaign cash. It’s the only green new deal the Kentuckian has ever cared about.
Arriving in Washington as a Senate backbencher in the mid-1980s, McConnell conceived a diabolically brilliant path to power: Allowing corporations and their billionaire investors to funnel six- and seven-figure donations to reelect his new colleagues was the ultimate form of “free speech.”
When McConnell lost a battle in the early 2000s to stop the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, he took the radical step of filing a lawsuit and taking it all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost that case, but he got everything he wanted in a later ruling in the Citizens United case. McConnell then rode a wave of Big Business contributions in the 2010s to cut corporate taxes to modern record-low levels and pack the judiciary with the most pro-business judges since the Gilded Age, as income inequality soared.
McConnell waxed poetically about the First Amendment as if he were wearing a powdered wig and trying to portray James Madison in a one-man play. In 2012, addressing Democratic threats to rein in the rising abuses of the Citizens United age, McConnell told the American Enterprise Institute that in viewing unlimited political spending as free speech, you are producing “a marketplace of ideas that you shouldn’t be afraid of ... There’s no question that what they” — Democrats — “want to do is intimidate people into shutting up, and believe me, if you give that power to the government they will do it selectively.”
Last week McConnell sounded utterly terrified by the marketplace of ideas, and he spoke openly of the government using its power to selectively intimidate people into shutting up.
What changed? With their brands under pressure from consumers in an increasingly diverse, progressive America, more corporations are taking stands on issues like LGBTQ rights, gun safety or voting rights — often in opposition to McConnell’s reactionary Republican Party.
Suddenly, Moscow Mitch’s beloved Fortune 500 is “dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government.” He said that they “will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.” The minority leader in the 50-50 Senate didn’t say what those consequences could be — but others in the GOP have tried to strip Delta Air Lines of a tax break after it criticized Georgia’s new voter suppression law, or proposed ending Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption after it yanked its 2021 All-Star Game from the Peach State.
How serious was McConnell? Not very. He was quick to add that he wasn’t talking about campaign contributions — still the lifeblood of the modern Republican Party.
“It’s all just a game for him,” Lee Drutman, author of the book “The Business of America Is Lobbying,” told me last week. Drutman and others have chronicled how business — blindsided by the expanded regulatory power in the 1970s — mastered the art of lobbying and of using the obtuse rulebook of Capitol Hill to block legislation, and later to buy influence with unchecked donations.
But the nation’s social changes in the 21st century, and a political environment in which culture wars now seem to matter more than Economics 101, drastically have altered the equation. Corporations are under pressure from their millennial and Gen Z employees for socially responsible practices, and social media campaigns seriously can damage a brand. Limits on voting rights have been part of the Republican playbook since the 1990s, but today firms like Coca-Cola or Delta feel compelled to speak out.
But here’s the question raised by the new anticorporate fervor on the pro-Trump right: Is the new flap over what conservatives call “corporate cancel culture” going to bring momentum for actual measures that would restrain that massive growth of corporate power, which would mean undoing everything that McConnell has accomplished in 36-plus years?
Congress and the Biden administration seem on the brink of the biggest rollback of corporate power since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, even if the moves have support from only Democrats.
■ Pay a fair share of taxes. Along with the wholesale regulatory rollbacks that occurred under Donald Trump, low taxes has always been the endgame for the chamber of commerce crowd, even as the extra cash boosted wealthy investors but didn’t lead toward high wages or broad economic gains. Biden plans to restore some balance with his plan to raise the corporate tax rate from the recent-historical low of 21% to 28%, which would still be less than the rate had been before the 2017 Trump tax bill.
But many corporations still pay little or no income taxes, often shifting profits to overseas tax havens. There’s a pending bill that aims to raise the rate and eliminate the loopholes in the 2017 Trump bill supposedly meant to recapture these lost dollars. And the Biden administration has endorsed an even bolder plan for a “global minimum tax” that would neutralize the use of tax havens.
■ Pass the For the People Act, HR 1. The measure that was approved by the House and is awaiting action by the Senate aims to expand voting rights at a moment when so many GOP-led states are looking to curtail them. But the bill also includes provisions that would roll back corporate influence, including a taxpayer-funded 6-1 donor match of small, under-$200 contributions to federal candidates and disclosure rules identifying corporate “dark money.” But HR 1 may be dead in the water with the refusal of West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to reform the filibuster.
■ Reduce the influence of corporate lobbyists. “There’s a practical, how-Congress-does-its-business approach,” said Drutman. He said Capitol Hill could combat the modern success of business lobbying by expanding its staffs to bring in more policy experts, so that the people drafting bills are wonks looking to improve the country, as opposed to lawyers looking to pump up corporate profits.
The result of a true curbing-corporate-power agenda would be a boon for actual free speech. It would make the government more responsive to the words of everyday people than to the dollars that flow from Wall Street. One shrewd analysis of the “corporate capture” of American government quotes the French economist Thomas Piketty: “If we are to regain control of capitalism, we must bet everything on democracy.” Good advice, but if you’re going to play this game of high-stakes poker, start with the most important rule of all: Mitch McConnell is always bluffing.
WILL BUNCH is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.