There's nothing wrong with unions becoming involved in the political process and nothing wrong with unions donating money to candidates -- so long as it is collected voluntarily from union members. But the union cash that was flowing in Iowa was almost entirely dues-funded, not voluntary contributions made to the unions' political action committees. Unions are allowed to spend dues on politics to get out the vote and promote union-endorsed candidates among union members and their households. But there's little doubt that the money spent in Iowa went beyond union households to the general public, which isn't legal if it exceeds the limits on campaign donations, as it always does.
The press doesn't bother keeping tabs on such activity, so it goes largely unnoticed, unreported and unpunished. And even if unions follow the rules and spend dues only in legitimate get-out-the-vote efforts among union households, they are still required to report this spending on their tax returns. Yet few unions comply. The National Education Association (NEA), for example, spends literally millions each year on politics, yet reports no political spending on its tax returns.
As tax-exempt organizations, unions must pay taxes on that portion of their revenues which are used for politics. Landmark Legal Foundation has recently filed complaints with the IRS on the NEA's refusal to obey the law, but, so far, the unions have managed to get away with massive tax evasion on their political spending.
Recent efforts by the Department of Labor to force unions to file more detailed reports on how they spend members' dues have now been held up. A Clinton-appointed judge imposed an injunction in December blocking the Department's new regulations, which would have allowed more scrutiny of unions' activities, until well after the 2004 elections. For the time being, at least, unions will be able to keep wasting their members' dues and ignoring their wishes -- with absolutely no consequences.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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