Campaign finance reform, which appeared dead until the Enron scandal revived sanctimonious blather about the supposedly dangerous nexus between money and politics, has staged a comeback. The Senate passed its own bill last year -- named for its chief co-sponsors Republican John McCain and Democrat Russell Feingold -- but is about the take up the House-passed version, which passed just recently.
Polls show that Americans don't place a high priority on enacting such legislation. But the media does, and politicians are worried about being tarred in the press as beholden to monied interests, so they're now eager to vote out a new law before this year's election campaigning gets into full swing. The problem is, the new legislation won't do much to control the biggest abuse in politics today: the confiscation of millions of dollars from American workers to pay for political activity over which they have no control and which they may not even approve of.
When corporations give political contributions to candidates, political parties, or even advocacy organizations, they're using voluntary funds collected from individuals who can choose to donate to -- or, in the case of corporate "soft money" contributions, invest in -- the company. No one forces an individual to make contributions to a corporate political action committee (PAC), or to buy stock in a company. And if a company donates money to candidates or causes that the individual disapproves of, he's free to take his money elsewhere.
But unions collect their money in other ways. Like corporations, most unions have PACs that depend on voluntary contributions -- and there's nothing wrong with these. However, union PACs represent only a tiny fraction of what unions spend on politics each year. Most of the money -- largely hidden from union members, not to mention the general public -- comes from union dues, which are anything but voluntary for workers covered by union contracts.
In non- Right-to-Work states, employees covered by union contracts can be forced to pay union dues, often hundreds of dollars a year. Although a 1988 Supreme Court decision gave workers the right to request a refund of the portion of those dues that goes to pay for union political activity, the ruling has never been enforced, which means workers have no recourse.
Unions spend millions of dollars each year out of their general treasury funds to pay for political ads, staff to work in political campaigns, voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, phone banks, literature distribution and other activities. The AFL-CIO recently announced it will increase its levy on its affiliated unions by some 60 percent to raise $35 million for its get-out-the vote efforts this November. And if a union member doesn't like the candidates or causes his union supports, there's not much he can do about it.
Neither the Senate nor House campaign finance bills do anything to change the fundamental unfairness of this system. Although both bills claim to control "soft money" contributions by corporations and unions, the controls on unions are virtually meaningless, since they don't even touch the main problem, which is the involuntary nature of the way unions collect and use workers' money.
The only way to fix the current inequity is to force unions to collect the money they use for politics the same way every other organization does: Make it entirely voluntary. Congressman Tom Tancredo (R.-Colo.) has introduced legislation that would accomplish that goal. The Workers Freedom of Choice Act would restrict union dues to the purpose they were originally intended: representing workers directly with their employers through collective bargaining, servicing the union contract, and representing employees in the grievance process.
Unions will still be able to raise money to use for politics, so long as they do it the same way every other group does -- by asking members to donate money to causes of their own choosing. Now that would be campaign finance reform worthy of the name.