Caught in the Crosshairs of Corporate Power: How Americans are Harmed When They Lack a Voice in Washington
This is part one of a five part series.
When political candidates spend their time begging for cash from wealthy interests and legislating to prioritize private profits over the public good, regular people lose out. The corporations and superrich donors that dominate our elections have an outsized influence over who wins, what gets discussed in campaigns and what legislative ideas receive serious consideration.
The sweeping legislative package known as the For the People Act (H.R. 1) contains ethics, campaign finance and voting rights reforms that are essential to make our government work effectively and fairly. The legislation would enact:
Comprehensive campaign finance reforms to end dark money and reduce the power of corporations and the wealthy to influence our elections. Under the bill, elected officials would be able to finance their campaigns from individual donations, with a match from the federal government.
Desperately-needed government ethics reforms to combat conflicts of interest by slowing the revolving door between public service and powerful business interests and strengthened oversight and enforcement of ethics laws and rules.
Voting and electoral reforms that would end gerrymandering, knock down barriers to voting and reaffirm the principle of one person, one vote.
Since Donald Trump’s election, corporate America has had a field day in Washington. Regulatory rollbacks and plummeting enforcement against corporate violators are leaving Americans more exposed than ever to profit-seeking predators. Meanwhile, massive tax cuts are allowing industry to get away without paying its fair share, and our meager social safety net programs have faced constant legislative threats.
To illustrate the need for reforms that reduce corporate influence and redistribute power to the people, Public Citizen compiled stories of five regular Americans whose lives have been impacted by corporate political power.
Corporate Power Spotlight: Higher Education
“It’s just one thing after another to hurt students.”
– Sanders Fabares, 39, San Diego
In 2003, Sanders Fabares was seeking to break into the film industry and wanted to get trained on how to use digital video production equipment. While looking at job ads, he saw an advertisement for an open house and barbecue event at the Art Institutes of California in San Diego.
At the time, he had limited knowledge of for-profit colleges. But after taking a tour, Fabares was impressed by the school’s sophisticated cameras and video equipment. A school’s recruiter boasted of a 95 percent job-placement rate, and pushed him aggressively to enroll, he said.
The job-placement rate was the main reason Fabares enrolled in the Art Institutes program, never considering that a school might not be truthful about such an important statistic. But the school’s former parent company, the now-bankrupt Education Management Corp., owned by Goldman Sachs and two private equity firms, later faced allegations of overly aggressive recruiting practices and exaggerating job-placement rates. The schools’ new owner has been closing down campuses.
Fabares found the Art Institutes program to be almost worthless, especially compared with the University of Arizona, where he had already studied to get a bachelor’s’ degree. With a high ratio of students to teachers, Fabares found it incredibly difficult to enroll in the classes he needed.
Fabares, now 39, and his wife, Jay, 36, met in a drawing class at the Art Institutes. They graduated with combined debt of about $96,000. They have made consistent payments but have only been able to cut their debt down to about $73,000 over the past 13 years, taking intermittent art jobs in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area before moving back to San Diego.
Fabares has filed a request for debt relief under the Education Department’s “borrower defense” program, which cancels debt for defrauded students. Four years after applying, he has yet to receive an answer. “If life throws you any curveballs under this debt, it’s going to make you default,” he said. “It’s doing to blow you out of the water. All it takes is a life change.”
Fabares currently works for a consulting firm that moderates companies’ online presence. The couple also works as caretakers for his elderly grandparents. Having a large amount of debt, “affected just everything we did,” he said. “We weren’t able to save hardly anything. We just were living paycheck to paycheck hoping something would pan out.”
Now Fabares is involved in efforts to hold for-profit schools and the Education Department accountable for their actions. He encourages former students from The Art Institutes to join the Facebook group “I Am AI” to meet others seeking justice.
Having attended rule-making sessions held by the Education Department, he has seen in person how lobbyists and for-profit colleges have fought meaningful oversight. “It’s just one thing after another to hurt students,” he said.
CORPORATE INFLUENCE AT WORK
For-profit colleges that saddle students with mountains of debt and worthless degrees have successfully lobbied Congress and the Education Department to block or weaken rules that protect students. As a result, millions of students and graduates around the country are burdened with debt and disillusioned.
The for-profit college industry has:
- Spent nearly $71 million on lobbying in Washington since 2008.
- Contributed more than $13.6 million in campaign money to Congress over the past 30 years, with money coming from PACs and individuals tied to the for-profit college sector.
- Contributed 53 percent to Congressional Republicans and 46 percent to Congressional Democrats.
SOURCE: Center for Responsive Politics.
Toward the end of the Obama administration, the Education Department started taking steps to rein in predatory for-profit college operators. Officials successfully cut off the flow of federal student loan money to some of the worst abusers. But under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the department’s efforts to protect students from predatory schools are being gutted. Several investigations into the for-profit college industry have been scotched, and DeVos has brought on several former for-profit college executives who are now overseeing the same companies where they once worked or represented. DeVos has made it more difficult for defrauded students to get their loans discharged and scaled back rules designed to weed out poor career-training programs at for-profit schools. Meanwhile, student debt continues to rise: According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, there is $1.46 trillion in outstanding U.S. student loans, with about 9 percent of that in serious delinquency, having had no payments in 90 days.