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As Congress Talks Stimulus, Labor Leaders Worry They Won't Have a Voice

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Organized labor, a fundamental constituency of the Democratic Party, is unhappy about lots of things these days, even though Democrats are in the majority in Congress.

Its latest disappointment involves the economic stimulus package that soon will start moving on Capitol Hill. Some union leaders are worried that they are not being heard, particularly in the Senate, and that a group of Wall Street Democrats led by former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin is getting more attention.

Case in point, labor leaders say, are the two initial hearings by the Senate Finance Committee on the stimulus bill. One will feature Jason Furman, director of the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project, a group heavy with Wall Street backers such as Rubin. The other will feature Peter R. Orszag, the head of the Congressional Budget Office, who is a former director of the Hamilton Project.

"The Finance Committee is a bit more of a challenge for labor and progressives," said Bill Samuel, legislative director of the AFL-CIO. Richard L. Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, said the labor federation is "working on" the finance panel's chairman, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), to persuade him to include labor's voice in later sessions.

But Leo W. Gerard, president of United Steelworkers International, said organized labor's concerns go well beyond a couple of hearings. "We have a problem in the Democratic Party," he said. "There's way too much influence from K Street lobbyists and Rubinistas" -- his term for Wall Street Democrats.

"These aren't the guys you ought to be listening to. These are the guys who brought the economic insanity we're dealing with now," Gerard said. "This is the same crowd that helped engineer the credit crunch and the collapse of mortgages."

On substance, labor economists such as those at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute like the idea of pouring money into infrastructure, such as road and bridge construction, as a way to create jobs and spur growth. Hamilton Project economists disagree, asserting that kind of spending takes too long to help the economy.

On broader issues, Hamilton Project folks prefer free trade and abhor budget deficits; labor economists tend to think the opposite way.

"On a lot of issues, they are definitely at odds," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. At the moment among Democrats, he added, "the Hamilton people have the upper hand."

Labor officials are boiling over the prominence given by Democrats to Rubin and his successor at Treasury, Lawrence H. Summers. "If the agenda that Max [Baucus] pushes forward represents the interest of the Hamilton Project, it will be a terrible disservice to the middle class," Gerard said.

But at least labor might get its say in the Senate. A day after The Post asked the Finance Committee about labor's complaints, the AFL-CIO's Samuel e-mailed to say that the committee had agreed to invite a labor person to testify -- eventually.

Another Union Complaint . . .

Democrats are holding their presidential nominating convention in Denver this summer. You would think, then, that there would be plenty of unionized hotels there to accommodate the delegates and please the party's union friends.

In fact, local officials say Denver has only one unionized hotel, a Hyatt at the convention center -- and organized labor is unhappy about the shortage. Stay tuned.

Dinner and a Movie

The capital's most famous party spot for members of Congress is not the Capital Grille or any other restaurant. It's the private, 70-seat theater two blocks from the White House at the headquarters of the Motion Picture Association of America.

When Congress is in session, lawmakers, staffers and other D.C. notables regularly show up there for a free movie, a meal and drinks. The events have served as a way for Hollywood to spread goodwill for decades.

Now, the spoilsports at Public Citizen, the liberal advocacy group, have complained to the House and Senate ethics committees that the events violate the new ethics law, which prohibits lobbyists from giving gifts to lawmakers, and say they want the parties shut down.

"Voters are fed up with lobbyists giving our lawmakers gifts, free dinners, lavish parties and golfing trips -- and Congress finally responded by banning these things," said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division. "But that hasn't stopped the motion picture industry from hosting free movie nights for officials and their staffs."

The association says its program complies with the rules: It is a "widely attended" event that also has an informational component -- sometimes a lecture, or a five-minute educational trailer that runs before the feature -- and meets the rules for people who work in Congress.

"The MPAA has worked over the years to ensure that all of our events are in compliance with the applicable government ethics rules, and we are confident that they are," said association spokeswoman Angela Belden Martinez.

The movie lobby plans to fight to keep its institution alive. In the meantime, lawmakers will still be allowed to pass the popcorn or, more important, the lamb chops.

Coincidence?

If anyone ever doubted that money matters in lobbying, the good people at MAPLight.org can put the naysayers to rest.

Last week, the House passed a mine safety bill backed by unions and opposed by mining companies.

According to MAPLight, the unions gave an average of nine times as much to legislators who voted yes on the bill as they did to lawmakers who voted no. The companies gave an average of three times as much to lawmakers who voted no as to those who voted yes.

In other words, "lawmakers' votes aligned closely with campaign dollars," said Dan Newman, MAPLight's executive director.

Hire of the Week

The Business Software Alliance named veteran congressional aide Katherine McGuire, 43, as vice president of government relations.

McGuire will oversee lobbying teams in D.C. and Brussels that deal with high-tech issues, including intellectual-property protection, patent reform and cyber-security.

She replaces Karen Knutso n, who left to become chief of staff for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

McGuire was a Republican staff director for several Senate panels. Most recently, she served as the GOP staff chief for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

The Business Software Alliance represents software and hardware companies including Adobe, Apple, Cisco Systems, Dell, IBM and Microsoft.

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