Last week, Clark gave us the short version of what’s wrong these days with Dick Gephardt. The Nation, in “Dick Gephardt’s Spectacular Sellout” gives us a more comprehensive summary. Indeed, author Sebastian Jones notes that all the major parts of the progressive agenda are struggling if not completely stalled in Congress, and Gephardt has lobbied against each one:
Key aspects of healthcare reform, like a public option, appear dead; climate change legislation, having narrowly passed the House in June, awaits an uncertain fate in the Senate; the Employee Free Choice Act and financial industry reforms have gone off the grid.
Is Jones’ assessment that the progressive agenda will fail in Congress darker than necessary? The next few months will tell. But there is no doubt that big business is throwing all its weight into stopping that agenda, and Jones feels that corporations are succeeding.
[The] momentum is with the corporate interests, thanks to players like Gephardt who have escorted them to the bargaining table. In a town where everyone seemingly has a price, Gephardt has distinguished himself, selling his reputation as a pro-labor, pro-universal healthcare, pro-environment expert and advocate to his new corporate masters, giving their efforts to kill and maim reforms a familiar, friendly face in the Democratic establishment. As a result, Gephardt has become a highly sought-after and very effective lobbyist. He has also betrayed nearly every principle he once claimed to hold.
Betraying those principles has included working for Goldman Sachs, helping Visa kill credit card reform, teaming up with Tom Daschle on behalf of UnitedHealth Group to oppose the public option, and playing Peabody Coal’s dirty game of opposing climate change legislation. When Gephardt’s 2004 presidential bid collapsed, he announced that he would spend time with his family and “consider a couple of employment opportunities.” Soon, he and his son, Matthew, formed a lobbying consulting firm–a classy one, though, Matthew claimed:
“We’re really getting involved with companies that share our values–ones involved in good corporate citizenry, with taking care of their employees, taking care of the environment and their local area as well, investing back in the community.”
By these standards, Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company and the firm’s first registered client, was a bizarre choice. Palmer, a senior vice president with the company, had helped to run the Greening Earth Society, a defunct industry front-group specializing in climate change denial, famously adopting as its motto “CO2 is beneficial to humankind and all of nature.” Describing their environmental record as “horrendous,” Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign, told me in a recent interview that Peabody’s “goal is to burn as much coal as possible.”
In an apparent attempt to counter this reputation, Peabody and Gephardt signed on to pushes for “clean coal”–something many environmentalists consider an oxymoron at best. In July Gephardt served as keynote speaker for the Clean Coal Technology Conference in Hope, Arkansas. All the big industry players were there, but several environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, were denied invitations. One speaker complained about excessive environmental regulation, while Mike Ross, the Blue Dog representative now famous for giving the White House daily headaches on healthcare, dropped by to reassure with platitudes like “coal is part of the solution to America’s energy problems.”
Then there is Peabody’s labor record. According to a July 2006 report prepared by Religious Leaders for Coalfield Justice and Interfaith Worker Justice, the company worked hard to strip its mines of unionized workers, with CEO Greg Boyce saying in 2005, “We have reduced the intensity of our unionization, and we would continue on that path.” The Rev. Theodore Erickson, a veteran of several coal-country labor disputes, told me that Peabody has been “aggressively decimating its unions” since the 1990s by closing unionized mines and opening new facilities nearby as a minority stakeholder. “Once the mine is fully staffed with nonunion people,” Erickson explained, “Peabody will buy the remainder…and the mine is forever nonunion.” The Sierra Club has joined union organizers at several recent St. Louis shareholder meetings in joint protests over Peabody’s environmental and labor policies. “They’re vehemently antiunion,” says Nilles.
After laying bare the reality behind Gephardt’s claim that Peabody Coal shares his progressive values, Sebastian Jones describes in some detail two other areas of Gephardt’s work: his efforts on behalf of pharmaceutical companies and his lobbying for professional employer organizations (PEOs), which Jones characterizes as a new twist on the ways of corporations in screwing employees. None of it is pretty.
Jones’ conclusion is harsh, not just about Gephardt but about the Democrats in D.C.
For Democrats, it raises the legitimate question of whether [Gephardt’s] ideological shift from progressive populist to big business champion is indicative of where the entire party is headed after two successive electoral victories.
While it is well within Gephardt’s rights to make money representing every anti-labor, anti-environmental, anti-universal healthcare client he can find, the former Congressman cannot have it both ways. Neither can the Democratic Party. In 2006 the top issue for voters was Washington’s “culture of corruption,” epitomized by Tom DeLay’s K Street Project and Jack Abramoff’s illegal excesses. Then, as in the 2008 campaign, Democrats were happy to decry the influence of lobbyists and special interests at every turn. As an electoral strategy, it worked brilliantly, but there has been little real reform to match the rhetoric. So it is hardly surprising that men like Gephardt continue to be welcome in polite progressive company, to be treated as statesmen by the media and their Congressional colleagues, and to serve as ostensibly neutral experts on issues they are heavily invested in on behalf of their new employers. Progressives would be fooling themselves to think the Gephardts of the Beltway are any different from their Republican predecessors. In fact, when it comes to cynically exploiting his reputation to profit his new employers, Gephardt is worse.