Campaign-Finance Bills Seen Curbing Unions’ Clout

By Julie A. Miller — September 05, 1990 5 min read

WASHINGTON--The House and the Senate have approved separate campaign-finance-reform bills that would restrict the influence of labor unions, but without the more severe curbs on their political clout sought by Republicans.

In fact, both bills contain provisions highly favorable to unions. The House bill would limit spending by political-action committees that receive large contributions, thereby favoring PAC’s with many small contributors, such as those run by unions.

While the Senate version would eliminate PAC contributions, thus cutting off a source of union power, it would also narrow a restriction on unions’ use of nonmembers’ contributions for activities not connected to collective bargaining.

At the heart of both measures passed last month, which are being closely watched by teachers'-union officials, are overall spending limits for Congressional candidates and limited public financing of their campaigns.

Those proposals are opposed by most Republicans. As a result, S 137 and HR 5400 were approved on largely party-line votes--59 to 40 and 255 to 155, respectively.

Republicans argue that spending limits favor incumbents, the majority of whom are Democrats, but Democrats see such restrictions as the cornerstone of any significant effort to rein in the skyrocketing cost of campaigns. President Bush has promised to veto any bill that contains spending limits.

In addition, there are enormous differences within the parties and between the House and the Senate.

“Having said that, the great unknown is the political dynamic,” said Michael Edwards, manager of Congressional relations for the National Education Association. “The question is whether any of the parties involved want to put themselves in a situation of being the entity that killed campaign-finance reform in an election year.”

If no action is taken, the issue is expected to resurface, and the electoral influence of unions is virtually certain to remain a topic of debate.

Mr. Edwards said the N.E.A. favors public financing and increased disclosure requirements, but fears that the Congress will eliminate PAC’s. He thinks it is less likely that the lawmakers would try to limit spending on unions’ internal-communication efforts, which he argues would be unconstitutional.

But G.O.P. lawmakers said they could not support reform legislation that would not curb that kind of indirect political activity by unions, which overwhelmingly favor Democratic candidates.

Republicans repeatedly denounced the influence of so-called “soft money"--which they termed “sewer money"--funds spent by political parties and outside organizations on election activity that is not subject to current spending and reporting limits.

“Soft money” includes money spent by political parties, unions, and other groups to communicate the organizations’ positions to their members; organizational-treasury funds that subsidize operating expenditures of affiliated PAC’s; and funds spent on voter education and get-out-the-vote drives that are officially nonpartisan but, in practice, often favor particular candidates.

Republicans contended that such expenditures by unions amount to $300 million to $500 million in every election cycle.

Mickey Ibarra, the N.E.A.'s political-advocacy manager, estimated that the union spends $200,000 to $300,000 per two-year election cycle on internal-communication efforts.

In addition, the N.E.A.'s PAC contributes even more money to the national Democratic Party, its state affiliates, and party organizations, which can be used either for direct contributions or for “soft money’’ purposes--more than $600,000 in the 1988 cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records. Its Republican Party contributions totaled about $15,000.

Representatives of the American Federation of Teachers were unble for comment.

Both Democratic bills would crack down on soft-money activity by parties, but not by outside groups.

The House bill would, however, require union and trade-association PAC’s to pay for “independent expenditures” from contributions rather than the organizations’ treasuries.

Such expenditures are efforts on behalf of a particular candidate, usually advertisements, that are undertaken without assistance or official authorization of the candidate and are not subject to contribution limits. Both bills would also tighten rules governing what can be considered an independent expenditure.

Mr. Ibarra said the N.E.A. has not done much in this area, though more efforts are being considered.

“There is a plus side and a down side to that,” he said. “We have focused on empowering and energizing our members, and that requires interaction. With independent expenditures, there can be no interacith the candidate.”

In addition, Mr. Ibarra said, the N.E.A.'s greatest strength is in “grass-roots organizing,” while independent expenditures usually are for mass-media campaigns.

The Senate debated union influence more extensively than the House, with Republicans invoking it as one of their key arguments against S 137.

Republicans offered two anti-union amendments, which failed on essentially party-line votes, with a handful of Republicans voting with all 55 Democrats.

One amendment, sponsored by Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, sought to revoke the tax-exempt status of unions or other exempt organizations if they engaged in political activity. It failed, 58 to 41.

An amendment offered by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, would have required unions to proxtensive documentation to all members, and nonmembers required to pay representation fees, and notify them that they could request a refund of money spent on political activity--including both “soft money” and direct contributions.

Mr. Hatch claimed his amendment would codify a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Beck v. Communications Workers of America, which held that nonmember workers who had to pay fees to a union for its collective-bargaining services were entitled to prorated refunds based on the amount the union spent on other activities, including political efforts.

But the amendment, which was defeated 59 to 41, would also have allowed union members to seek refunds of political monies and increased disclosure requirements.

Senator David L. Boren, Democrat of Oklahoma, also contended that his successful alternative amendment would codify Beck. But it actually would limit nonmembers’ refunds to money spent on political activity. It was approved, 57 to 43.

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 1990 edition of Education Week as Campaign-Finance Bills Seen Curbing Unions’ Clout