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AFL-CIO Urges 'Soft Money' Ban, Other Campaign Finance Changes

By Frank Swoboda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 1997; Page A04

PITTSBURGH, Sept. 22—The AFL-CIO, in a major policy shift, today called for a ban on "soft money" contributions in national politics as part of an overall campaign finance reform proposal that would free up millions of dollars for unions to spend on political organizing efforts in future elections.

So-called soft-money contributions are those made to political parties rather than specific candidates and are not limited by federal election laws. Labor gave a total of $9.5 million in soft money in 1996, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The AFL-CIO's proposal also calls for public financing of federal political campaigns, free radio and television time for candidates, and caps on contributions to political parties as well as candidates.

The federation also revealed plans to raise the per capita dues of each of its 78 member unions by 5 cents a month to raise $12 million over the next two years for the creation of a fund to pay for voter registration and political "issue" advertising. The AFL-CIO estimates it takes in $1.5 million a year for every penny it assesses in dues.

The call for reforms comes as the federation itself is under intense scrutiny for its own role in political campaign financing last year.

A Senate committee investigating campaign finance is taking a hard look at labor's spending in last year's elections, particularly a special $35 million assessment the AFL-CIO levied on its member unions to pay for "educational" advertising and membership mobilization in targeted congressional districts.

Last week, federal prosecutors revealed they are investigating allegations that the AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer and other unnamed labor union officials were involved in a money-laundering scheme to help last year's reelection campaign of Teamsters President Ron Carey. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka declined to comment on the matter today.

The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that labor – all unions, not just the AFL-CIO – spent at least $119 million on political activities in the 1996 elections, the overwhelming majority of the money going to Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who spoke at the federation's biennial convention here this afternoon, said he welcomed labor's support for changes in the campaign finance system and called it a sign "momentum was building for meaningful campaign finance reform." He said it was the first time labor has supported any meaningful campaign finance reforms.

Daschle said he was optimistic the Senate would pass some type of campaign finance reform this session, an optimism many labor leaders at the convention did not seem to share. Key labor officials seemed convinced that there was enough opposition in Congress to campaign reform that it would be hard to pass any meaningful changes.

Federation President John Sweeney, in his speech to the convention, said labor should start spending its political money on its own people, not the political parties.

"We must stop giving money to political parties who won't give unions the respect we deserve, and we must stop supporting political candidates who won't support working families," he said. "It is time for us to begin spending our money on our own media and grass-roots lobbying around the issues that matter to the workers."

Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the AFL-CIO's decision to actively seek campaign finance reform reflects a new approach many unions are beginning to take toward national politics. McEntee, who chairs the AFL-CIO's political committee, said labor is beginning to look for philosophical allies of both parties in Congress rather than making Democratic Party control its overwhelming goal, as it did in the 1996 elections.

McEntee said some unions complained after the election that labor had spent too much money and effort targeting Republicans for defeat, including moderate Republicans who often are labor allies on many legislative issues.

The call for campaign finance reform was approved by the AFL-CIO's 54-member executive council by a unanimous vote after some initial changes were made. McEntee said some union leaders were concerned that the proposal amounted to "unilateral disarmament" on labor's part.

McEntee said that if Congress were to agree on a ban on soft-money contributions "it would certainly free up a lot of money" for labor to spend on its own programs. "It would put the emphasis [on spending] inside the labor movement," he said.

One of the first goals of labor's new political mobilization efforts will be the defeat of President Clinton's request for Congress to renew his "fast track" authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress can approve or disapprove, but not amend.

The AFL-CIO already is spending millions to mobilize its members against the bill in targeted congressional districts. Labor argues that Clinton's proposal does not include sufficient provisions to protect U.S. workers from competition by companies operating in nations with weaker labor and environmental laws.

Trumka said that labor estimates there are 40 swing votes in the House on the bill. "It's going to be a very close vote," he said.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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