Teaching Profession

New Campaign-Finance Law Plays to Union Strength

By Bess Keller — April 17, 2002 3 min read
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Under the new federal law that tightens regulations on campaign spending, the two largest teachers’ unions may gain political clout from the numbers of people they can call on, rather than in the dollars they are accustomed to spending.

In recent years, the 2.6 million-member National Education Association and the 1.2 million-member American Federation of Teachers have markedly upped their “soft money” contributions to political parties, mostly to the Democrats. The unions also buy broadcast airtime for “issue” ads that target federal candidates just before elections. (“Unions Pull Out Stops for Elections,” Nov. 1, 2000.)

Both of those forms of electioneering—soon to be covered by the legislation passed by Congress last month—have been largely unregulated and increasingly popular with political players. Total soft-money spending in the 2000 federal election cycle, for instance, was eight times what it was eight years earlier, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent research group in Washington.

After next November’s elections, however, the teachers’ unions—along with all other unions, corporations, and individuals— will be barred from giving soft money to the national parties.

The law also bans the unions and other nonprofit groups from sponsoring TV and radio advertisements within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election for federal offices.

Observers point out, however, that limits on monetary contributions tend to boost the relative influence of those who make other kinds of donations, such as free election-related labor and expertise—two of the unions’ strongest suits.

The unions themselves acknowledge that an important strength is in the thousands of people they can send into the political fray—even more than the millions of dollars they can earmark for one candidate or another.

‘Bargaining Chip’

So, when the new campaign- finance law takes effect, the teachers’ unions may cast an even larger shadow than they do today in the Democratic Party, with which they are largely allied.

“Now [the unions’] bargaining chip will be less how much they can contribute, and more, ‘Here’s how we can mobilize in your district—how many voters’ guides we can distribute, how many people we can put in the phone bank,’ ” said Steven C. Weiss, the communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics. “A lot of people think that campaign-finance reform will benefit unions.”

It is harder to say, though, whether union manpower will translate into a decisive advantage for union-endorsed candidates or positions.

“We like to mobilize our members, and we are grateful to those who come out, but other groups are as successful as we are in mobilizing participants,” said Steve Nousen, a lobbyist for the NEA, citing, for example, socially conservative groups.

Political strategists are split on which party might gain from the legislation. Adding to the uncertainty is the possibility that the courts could strike down at least portions of the law as violating First Amendment protections. The law drew court challenges almost as soon as President Bush quietly signed it on March 27.

Republicans have generally been more effective fund-raisers than Democrats, excelling particularly in getting so-called hard money from many individual donors. With soft money gone and the limits on contributions from individuals doubled (to $2,000 for federal candidates and $25,000 for parties), the new game may be to make the most headway with well-off—not very rich—contributors.

Teachers as individuals are typically small donors, which is why the NEA disliked the adoption of higher individual limits on contributions without higher limits on what a group’s political action committee can hand over.

“That puts us and our members who contribute very little money per capita at a distinct disadvantage,” Mr. Nousen said.

Both the NEA and the AFT offered tepid support for the bill, which would cut into their ability to run broadcast ads independent of candidates’ own campaigns.

Both say they are concerned that that provision of the law interferes with their right to free speech, although neither has decided whether to weigh in on the legal battle taking shape over that issue.

“AFT supports campaign-finance reform because our greatest strength in the world is not financial power, but people power,” said Elizabeth Smith, the union’s political director. “Our hope is that it will bring a little more balance to American politics and get average citizens more involved.” But, she added, “this is not a perfect law.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as New Campaign-Finance Law Plays to Union Strength

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