Survivor: Special interest edition


Over at The Washington Post’s Wonk Blog, Ezra Klein has a short post discussing how unions have been outspent in Washington over the last 13 years by “business” interests. Despite its brevity, the post opens the spigot to several important policy and political discussions.

First, Klein quotes the head of AFL-CIO about the future of his organization:

“We’re not going to let the employer decide who our members are any longer,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told Meyerson. “We’ll decide.”

How will that happen? By trying to create a national worker movement. Yet in reading the Meyerson piece, it’s clear unions are not so much trying to help their members as they are trying to promote their own survival. Klein points out the political activism some of the nation’s largest unions are prioritizing (as opposed to helping workers) doesn’t come with “significant dues” from fellow activists.

It makes Trumka’s claim rather absurd, since employers and employees work together when creating contracts – and the more hostile unions become to employers through their political activism, the more resistant the latter will become to hiring union workers.

Next, Klein says “absent significant dues, labor won’t, in the long run, have the money to be a particularly powerful force in American politics, or a powerful organizing force in American workplaces.”

This is a very questionable claim. While private-sector unions may not have as much power as they once did, public unions are still very influential. Consider that the California Teachers Union dedicated over $1 million to defeating the non-teacher related Proposition 8 in 2008, or that earlier this year the SEIU, AFL-CIO, and the National Education Association all signed amicus briefs related to the Proposition 8 and DOMA Supreme Court cases this year.

What, exactly, does organized labor have to do with gay marriage? Nothing, unless the unions are simply going to back every single policy the Democratic Party does. Which seems to be the case, since 93% of “labor” political donations in 2009 and 2010 went to Democrats.

Which leads to the next point Klein makes: that labor is vastly outgunned by business interests in Washington. By something along the lines of 15 to 1.

However, the caveats to this claim are numerous. Klein names two of them:

“Business” has a much less unified agenda than American labor, for instance. And it doesn’t always get its way. According to, business contributions slightly favored Democrats in the 2010 election cycle. But voters certainly didn’t has three more major caveats to add to Klein’s:

 An important caveat must be added to these figures: “business” contributions from individuals are based on the donor’s occupation/employer. Since nearly everyone works for someone, and since union affiliation is not listed on FEC reports, totals for business are somewhat overstated, while labor is understated. Still, the base of large individual donors is predominantly made up of business executives and professionals. Contributions under $200 are not included in these numbers, as they are not itemized.

In other words, the term “business” really doesn’t mean “business.” And unions aren’t listed on FEC reports, whereas “business” contributions are. And with contributions under $200 not listed, the numbers really are skewed.

Furthermore, Klein’s numbers ignore the picture bigger cited at a different spot on – the vast majority of the top 20 biggest political donors since 1989 support Democrats, and most of those are unions and “associations.” So, clearly, unions have not been as “outgunned” as Klein indicates.

Klein closes by pushing for limits on campaign contributions:

Whomever it benefits, this is a deeply unbalanced political system. And I see little reason to believe that labor will make the sort of comeback required to balance it anytime soon. All of which ultimately speaks to the importance of fundamental campaign-finance reform. While one way to balance out corporate money in American politics would be to somehow resuscitate organized labor, a much more straightforward way to do it is to pass legislation that reduces the power of all moneyed interests in American politics.

 While Klein’s intentions may be to fix an allegedly imbalanced system, his solution is thoroughly inadequate. First, passing laws simply empowers connected interests. Second, many “moneyed interest” laws risk violating the First Amendment. And, lastly, there is simply a much more efficient way to reduce the influence of money in politics:

The Beltway can regulate everything as much as possible, and corruption will still exist in the power center of America. The best, and only, solution to this kind of corruption is a weakening of the center of power.

In other words, Washington needs to go back to the Constitution’s limits on power. There’s no need for new powers or regulations; merely reuse ones that are hundreds of years old.

It’s really that simple. Weaken Washington, and you weaken the connected interests. No matter how much money interests have, if the politicians they are attempting to influence do not have the ability to grant policy favors, the influence is gone.