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The summer of our cynical discontent

Chris Fitzsimon

This still may end up as the year of change the majority of people in North Carolina and across the country voted for last November, but it feels like much of the optimism and hope are wilting in the Washington summer heat under pressure from the well-heeled lobbyists for business as usual.

Those are the folks armed with bags of campaign money and the made-for-cable-news-shows talking points supplied by the not-so-thinly disguised partisan think tanks funded by the people who don’t want anything to change on Wall Street or in the health care industrial complex.

The housing crisis that triggered the national economic collapse rages on. One in eight mortgages is now delinquent or already in foreclosure. Congress refused to step in and change the bankruptcy laws to allow judges to modify mortgages on primary homes, bowing again to the wishes of the lending institutions that are using taxpayer money to lobby against the public interest.

Judges can still adjust the terms of a mortgage on a vacation home or a loan to buy a yacht, but middle-class families facing foreclosure are on their own. President Obama supported the change in bankruptcy law during last fall’s campaign, but in May signed a housing bill without it.

Obama’s proposal to overhaul the regulation of the financial industry released last week is drawing mixed reviews, with many consumer advocates disappointed that the administration chose to fine-tune the current regulatory scheme instead of redesigning it.

The New York Times reported that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner called the proposal pragmatic, but not ideal. Presumably, it’s pragmatic because that’s all administration officials believe they can pass in a Congress the financial industry still dominates, despite its recent performance and loss of credibility with the public.

Then there’s health care reform. Proposals from Obama and members of Congress that include a public option for consumers to consider are running into stiff opposition, and not just from the predictably anti-government crowd.

Some Democratic senators, though also elected by a mandate for change, don’t like it either. The Greensboro News and Record reports that North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan is hedging on a public health care option, responding to the lobbying offensive by insurance companies, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.

BCBSNC CEO Bob Greczyn told an audience in Chapel Hill last week that nothing much will change in the health care system for the next five to 10 years.
Greczyn and BCBSNC are doing all they can to make sure that’s true, launching a campaign purporting to support reform but designed to defeat any proposal for a public health care option.

The rhetoric is only slightly toned down from ads that were leaked last month as they were being produced by a Raleigh marketing and PR firm whose CEO hosted a fundraiser for Obama last fall and was an adviser to his campaign.

Change as campaign rhetoric is one thing. It’s quite another when it affects the corporate bottom line.
That’s the way things work in Raleigh, as well as in Washington.

State lawmakers are balking at expanding public financing of campaigns even as the investigation into the activities of former Gov. Mike Easley reveal again the cozy relationship between campaign donors and fundraisers and state officials who rely on the special-interest money with strings attached to get elected.

One of the few encouraging signs is the current battle between House and Senate leaders over a revenue package to protect public education and human services from the most damaging budget cuts.

Both chambers’ plans include asking corporations and the wealthy to pay more taxes. That’s clear from the battalion of lobbyists working the legislative halls to modify the final plan. There is still hope for a reasonably progressive revenue package to come out of this General Assembly.

Maybe members of Congress will eventually get the message and start remembering that the voters didn’t send them to Washington to do the bidding of the financial industry or insurance companies.

Maybe. But judging from the recent proclivity to water down the compromise that’s proposed after a watered-down compromise is rejected for going too far, it is hard to believe that when it really matters the same people won’t be calling most of the shots where the laws are made, making for a long, hot, cynical summer.

People may have voted for change they can believe in, but now they are ready for change they can see.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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