Campaign finance reform is dead, no matter what finally happens on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. So long as unions can spend several hundred million dollars in unreported and involuntary funds to elect candidates of their choice while others' hands are tied, political abuse will follow. And none of the proposed bills begins to deal with the problem.
Unions are the biggest source of real campaign abuse -- yet their political clout has allowed them to be treated differently than any other political group. Unions once existed largely to represent their members in collective bargaining. No more. With more than 40 percent of the AFL-CIO membership now made up of government employees, politics has become the business of Big Labor. Yet much of the money unions spend on politics goes unreported. Worse, the money comes from individuals who have little to say in how their money is spent.
In the 2000 election, unions spent about $75 million on direct "hard money" contributions to federal candidates, but as much as $800 million in a combination of "soft money" and hidden contributions. Where does this money come from? Union "hard money" comes from voluntary donations to union political action committees, but "soft money" comes right out of union dues. And union dues aren't always voluntary.
No one forces you to join the National Rifle Association or the Sierra Club, so presumably if you pay dues to organizations such as these, you approve of their political activities. But if you work at a job covered by union contract, you're forced to pay money to the union -- so-called agency fees -- even if you adamantly disagree with its political positions. These fees -- usually equivalent to the amount of union dues -- are supposed to cover the cost of collective bargaining. But the unions use the money for a great deal more, including funding political activity directly and indirectly. And those forced to pay agency fees have nothing to say about how their money is spent.
In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that employees could ask for a refund of that portion of their fees that went toward politics and other activities unrelated to collective bargaining, but the decision has been widely ignored by the unions and is difficult to enforce. As a result, unions have huge treasuries to spend as they choose, with virtually no system of checks and balances.
But the problem goes beyond coercion in the way in which the money is collected. Many unions spend the money illegally, too, but their activities are difficult to detect.
Unions are allowed to spend money communicating with their members on issues or publicizing their endorsements of candidates. They may also register union members and their families and get out the union vote on Election Day. They can also assign union staff to political campaigns, so long as the cost doesn't exceed campaign contribution limits. But some unions go way beyond these legal activities, printing and disseminating campaign literature for use with non-union as well as union households, using union-staffed phone banks to call non-union households, assigning union "volunteers" to work in campaigns while paying them salaries. I saw some of these abuses when I was an official for the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1983. If anything, the problem has gotten much worse in the last 20 years.
Yet the politicians -- especially the Democrats, who receive 90 percent of union political contributions -- aren't willing to take on the unions and end these abuses. What's more, the taxpayers subsidize union political activities twice. Unions themselves are tax-exempt organizations, as are some other nonprofit organizations that engage in political activity. But unlike most other nonprofit political advocacy groups, unions get a second tax subsidy because union dues are tax-deductible to the individual paying them while contributions to other lobbying and political groups are not.
If unions can get away spending tax-deductible dues in partisan political activity, if they can coerce non-members into paying for these activities, and if they can continue to hide their actions from public scrutiny, campaign finance reform will exist in name only.