June 22, 2007

Are Corporate Lobbyists the Greatest Threat to Conservative Principles?

Like most people, I have probably always associated the Chamber of Commerce and corporate lobbyists with more conservative lawmakers on the state and federal level. The conservative movement has been telling us forever that the government needs to get out of the way of business and just let it thrive, which is one part of their larger story that government should be smaller and that big government just can't operate in a way that is fair or efficient.

So it's a little jarring when we see conservative lawmakers touting positions pushed by corporate lobbyists that essentially call for special favors for business owners at the expense of taxpayers. Two stories from this week's Tax Justice Digest demonstrate the startling phenomenon I'm talking about.

The first concerns a new law just signed by the governor of Oklahoma, Brad Henry (D) that will require the state to "build a web site detailing virtually all expenditures of state funds, including state contracts and tax credits and incentive payments given to businesses." Remarkably, the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce opposes this measure, saying it will "will shine an unwanted light on those who invest in Oklahoma, and it will make it much more difficult to attract those investors."

Think about this for a second. Ordinary people, working people with families, who pay state taxes, are supposed to see their tax burdens increase so that special subsidies or tax breaks can be enacted for certain business interests. Then to top it off, these businesses believe that the public should not have access to a list of the gifts that the public is paying for. Can you imagine what conservatives would say if a single mother on welfare said she didn't think the public had a right to see how much public money was being spent on programs for low-income people? Put in this context it becomes clear what an absurd argument the state's chamber of commerce is making.

Thankfully the legislature and the governor have put aside these complaints. But there are legislative bodies less enlightened than the one in Oklahoma. Like the U.S. Congress, for example. On Capitol Hill, corporate lobbyists display the same sense of entitlement to the public purse and they're widely defended by lawmakers who like to call themselves conservative.

Take this week's debate over energy policy, another story in this week's Digest. The Senate yesterday was unable to pass a package of tax provisions that would essentially eliminate or reduce some loopholes enjoyed by oil and gas companies and redirect the money towards tax breaks for alternative energy sources.

Now we can debate all night about whether the tax code should be used to encourage one kind of energy production over another, but the fact is we're already handing out special tax breaks to oil and gas companies, so redirecting those tax breaks to more environmentally friendly energy sources would be an improvement. Anyway, lobbyists for the oil and automotive industries have been screaming, and many conservative Senators seemed to be repeating their talking points for them.

Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) complained about the closing of tax loopholes for oil, saying "It's commonsense that if you tax something, the price will probably go up because the higher the business cost, you know the consumer is going to have to absorb that cost at some point." How this justifies a tax break for oil companies that other businesses or tax payers don't get is entirely unclear. By this logic we should probably have more loopholes for companies that provide gasoline since we use it and we want it to be cheaper, but... isn't that true of just about every product we buy and use? What makes BP and Exxon-Mobil special? At least the people advocating tax breaks for alternative fuels have an argument about helping the environment, for what it's worth.

But more to the point, how can someone like Hutchison ever claim to be conservative? Isn't giving out goodies to oil companies (or anyone) courtesy of the federal taxpayer sort of against what the conservative movement is all about? Special tax loopholes for business are really just a form of corporate welfare; they cost us in terms of revenue lost and ordinary taxpayers (as in you and me) have to make up for it with higher taxes or fewer of the services we depend on.

Conservatives talk a great deal of their fear of higher taxes, but they really ought to be afraid of the corporate interests that are eroding all the principles they claim to believe in.


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