The Powell Memo
Laying out a counterattack to grassroots democracy

Vol 6 2 cover
Confidential Memorandum: Attack on American Free Enterprise System

On August 23, 1971, Lewis Power wrote his famous “Confidential Memorandum: Attack on American Free Enterprise System” to his friend Eugene B. Sydnor, Jr., Chairman, Education Committee, U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  You can read a history and analysis of the memo here.

The memo was Powell's reaction to the first Earth Day in 1970, and the increase in new local, state and federal legislation to "regulate"  the impact of corporate activity on air, land, water and wildlife, resulting in passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Art in 1973 by the so-called “Environmental Congress.”

Powell saw the handwriting on the wall. In his memo he makes clear that the national environmental movement and the efforts of Congress were an assault on the American free enterprise system and this assault needed to be counteracted.

One important result was that Pres. Nixon created Trade Promotion Authority, commonly known as Fast Track, through the Trade Act of 1974 to enable Congress to suspend the ordinary legislative review and approval process and give trade agreements expedited treatment by limiting committee hearings and floor debate and allowing no amendments.

Subsequently, with passage of NAFTA in 1994 and the WTO Agreement in 1995 under Clinton, the corporate investor rights section was inserted in trade agreements and a special system of international tribunals established to hear trade disputes. It became evident just how far corporations and the Chamber was willing to go to limit the Constitutional authority of the legislative branch "to regulate Commerce with foreign nations," (Article 1, Section 8) and to fight back against the environmental movement.

In 2011, Jim Allison, a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom wrote a play titled "Justice Powell Writes a Memo."

As Allison wrote, in 1971, corporate America saw Richard Nixon as a puzzle: a Republican who wanted more regulation of business, including higher taxes on capital gains, an end to tax shelters and stronger environmental and job safety regulation. A corporate lawyer, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., laid out a counterattack in a confidential memo, sharing it with a friend at the US Chamber of Commerce. Powell went on to sit on the US Supreme Court, but his memorandum served as a blueprint for a half-century of corporate dominance of politics, elections, public opinion, the media and the courts.

"Mr. Powell Writes a Memo" features Powell, his friend Edward R. Murrow, and the offstage voices of Ralph Nader and William Rehnquist.



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Justice Rising: Grassroots Solutions to Corporate Rule published a three-part series on Money in Politics, focusing on corporate campaign donations, the revolving door and how influence shapes policy. Issues and articles are available online here.

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