What is so phony about the much ballyhooed tort reform is that it aims not at overzealous lawyers but only at those who happen to represent poorer plaintiffs.
Watching the 109th Congress, one would be forgiven for thinking our Constitution was the blueprint for a government of Big Business, by Big Business and for Big Business. Forget the people - this is Robin Hood in reverse.
Here's the agenda, as laid out by the president and the Republicans who control Congress: First, limit people's power to right wrongs done to them by corporations. Next, force people to repay usurious loans to credit card companies that make gazillions off the fine print. Then, for the coup de grace, hand over history's most successful public safety net to Wall Street.
Of course, the GOP and the White House use slightly different language for this corporate-lobbyist trifecta: "Tort reform," "eliminating abuse of bankruptcy" and "keeping Social Security solvent" are the preferred Beltway phrasings for messing with the little guy.
The first installment came last week with the passage of a law that will make it more difficult for consumers to win class-action lawsuits against private companies. Because state courts, which are closer to the people, have proved sympathetic to the liability claims of ordinary folks, the new legislation puts many class-action suits in federal courts, which turn out decisions more attuned to the heartfelt pleas of corporate attorneys.
What is so phony about the much ballyhooed tort reform is that it aims not at overzealous lawyers but only at those who happen to represent poorer plaintiffs. Corporate lawyers are very much in play in writing this new legislation.
Which is why we should expect severe limits on the amount of damages that can be collected by those harmed by asbestos exposure or by medical malpractice. Memo to would-be Erin Brockoviches: Don't give up your day job.
Next on the corporate wish list is savaging Chapter 7 bankruptcy relief, which is offered to individuals who can't pay their debts. It allows them to give up nonessential assets in exchange for a fresh start. Chapter 7 has been a tool for family and societal stability for decades; torquing it in the favor of credit card companies has been a fantasy of the industry for almost as long.
Never mind that it is obvious to everybody who gets junk mail that lenders should be far more responsible about how they hand out credit cards. The credit industry's sleazy come-ons, onerous interest rates and frantic marketing to teenagers go unaddressed by Congress; it is only consumers who are expected to be conscientious.
Is "onerous" too strong? Hardly. It's way beyond onerous when a struggling parent puts back-to-school expenses on an "introductory rate" credit card and then sees the interest rate surge toward 30 percent when she's two days late with her payment. Now $500 in books and clothes are going to cost her thousands by the time she can afford to finish paying for them. Ironically, considering the number of senators and representatives who love to quote Scripture, such outrageous usury was explicitly condemned in the Old Testament as what it is, "extortion."
And while the story of Jesus in the temple is also being roundly ignored, so is that other once- sacred pillar of the Republican philosophy: states' rights. Nearly all states have reasonable limits on interest rates, which have been trumped by D.C. politicians in the thrall of corporate lobbies. Sure, business interests deserve some clout in a democracy, but this is ridiculous.
In fact, the GOP's legislative calendar looks like a wish list sent over to the White House from the Chamber of Commerce across the street. Senate Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) dropped in there the other day after a breakfast meeting with the president to assure the chamber that its wishes would soon be law. After all, the chamber spent $168 million to push the anti-class-action lawsuit bill along. Still to come this session: raising allowable emissions standards on major pollutants, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the granddaddy of all corporate payouts: privatization of Social Security.
So what's the big revelation? That, almost 2,000 years after Jesus routed those scoundrels, the money changers have not merely reentered the temple - they are the temple.
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