Introduction Key Stories Opinion Key Players Matching Game Coffee Guests Overnight Guests Discussions Web Links

Politics Section
Special Reports

Campaign Finance: A 'Poison Pill' . . .

By David S. Broder
Sunday, October 5, 1997; Page C07

From Capitol Hill to California, conservatives claim to have found a new weapon for their arsenal – a device to disarm labor unions and put Democrats on the defensive. But it is a weapon that can produce a dangerous backlash.

The device is wonderfully simple: a legal requirement that workers give written permission before unions can use their dues for political purposes.

In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) this week will try to attach such an amendment to the pending campaign finance reform bill. He calls its approval "the price of admission" to every other aspect of the debate. Democrats call it a "poison pill" and say if it passes, they will filibuster to protect their union allies – which would allow Lott to blame them for sinking the overall reform package that he despises.

In California, where I was reporting last week, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson announced that he will lead an effort for a 1998 ballot initiative to enact a similar requirement. At the Republican state convention in Anaheim, Wilson drew a standing ovation by declaring that "union members shouldn't be forced to have their pockets picked for candidates or causes they don't support."

This "payroll protection" drive, as proponents call it, is the handiwork of J. Patrick Rooney, an Indianapolis insurance tycoon who previously put millions into making medical savings accounts and school vouchers part of the national Republican agenda.

Rooney told me that, through the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Seattle, he is financing lawsuits by teachers against the Washington Education Association for allegedly violating a 1992 state initiative that is the model for the Lott and Wilson proposals.

The California initiative "was going to stall out for lack of money," Rooney told me, "so I got involved," and became chairman of a signature drive that seems likely to put the issue on next June's ballot. But that is not the end of it. Rooney said he and Grover Norquist, another conservative activist, have enlisted Wilson to take the proposal to next month's meeting of all Republican governors and urge them to do the same thing in their states. A parallel bill has attracted more than 160 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives.

Polls show the idea of letting union members control how their dues are spent is popular with voters. As a device for limiting labor's voice, it is devastatingly effective. "It has had a dramatic, negative impact on us," by drying up funds and bringing on a lawsuit by the state attorney general, Trevor Neilsen, spokesman for the Washington teachers' union, told me. At the state employees' union, officials have reported that authorizations for payroll deductions for its political operations had been signed by only 82 of its 2,500 members.

In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Teamsters v. Beck that workers in a unionized company must be allowed the option of reclaiming the portion of their dues used for political purposes. But the Beck decision has not been enforced. Most employers are reluctant to risk union trouble by encouraging dissidents. In 1992, President Bush, responding to conservative pressure, issued an executive order requiring government contractors to inform employees of their Beck case rights. But President Clinton rescinded it on taking office, as a boon to unions and because, a White House official said, "he thought it was one-sided."

Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold, sponsors of the main Senate campaign finance bill, have included a codification of the Beck decision in their measure. But Lott and Wilson and Rooney would go much further by requiring written permission from workers each year for political use of their dues. Feingold and other opponents say that is unfair, noting that it would leave corporations free to continue making soft money political contributions without permission of stockholders who might hold opposing views. And the pending initiatives do not affect hundreds of other mass-membership organizations such as the National Rifle Association and the American Association of Retired Persons, which are also hip-deep in politics.

Whether this is a political masterstroke for Republicans remains to be seen. In 1958, conservatives promoted right-to-work initiatives, barring union shop contracts, in six states. They lost everywhere but in Kansas. In California and Ohio, the two biggest targets, labor's mobilization fueled Democratic victories that devastated the GOP.

California unions are threatening to retaliate against the Rooney-Wilson initiative by placing on the ballot a measure that would "sunset" every existing corporate tax break not approved by two-thirds vote of the people and redistribute the estimated $8 billion to $12 billion a year of revenue in $1,000-a-person tax rebates.

Conservatives may learn that if you play with fire, you can be burned.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top

Go to Campaign Finance Report | Go to Politics Section
Navigation image map
Home page Site Index Search Help! Home page Site Index Search Help!