Rebellions in Republican ranks, both loud and quiet, suggest that the Bush administration may be getting too partisan even for members of the president's own party.
Already, a small but critical group of moderate Senate Republicans has forced President Bush to shave $176 billion off his tax cut proposal, and the rebels are holding firm for more concessions. They see a tax program rooted in the supply-side notions of the 1980s as entirely inappropriate to a time of rising deficits, war and reconstruction.
Now comes a group of 28 House Republicans who think that the administration should pull away from its assault on the American labor movement.
With little fanfare this month, the pro-labor Republicans wrote Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, urging her to cancel sweeping new reporting and disclosure requirements for unions aimed at their political, lobbying and collective-bargaining activities. Led by Rep. Jack Quinn of New York and including Reps. Phil English of Pennsylvania, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Chris Smith of New Jersey, the group said the new rules would be "unduly burdensome."
"We believe that union resources are best utilized when representing members during negotiations or grievance handling, not adapting and complying with an unprecedented level of detailed financial information and government forms," they wrote. "While we share your concern over the burden of government regulation of small businesses, we believe the same standard should apply to labor organizations as well."
What an idea: insisting that unions deserve as fair a shake as businesses.
The AFL-CIO argues that the rules are so intricate and sweeping that they seem designed to create legal and bureaucratic traps even for the most honest union leaders. It recently unearthed evidence to back up its claim that the new regulations are a politically inspired effort to use the government's power to undercut the effectiveness of one of the most powerful constituencies opposed to the president's party.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the unions discovered a letter written in 1992 by then-Republican Whip Newt Gingrich to the first President Bush's labor secretary, Lynn Martin, and Clayton Yeutter, the president's domestic policy adviser. Gingrich urged them "to institute changes in the LM-2 union reporting and disclosure form" -- exactly the form Chao is altering -- "to provide union members with essential information on dues expenditures."
In his letter, Gingrich said plainly what supporters of the administration's rules would deny. This change and a related one, Gingrich said, would "weaken our opponents and encourage our allies." Give the former House speaker his due: He has always been candid about his political goals.
The reporting rules are just one of many swipes the administration has taken at organized labor. Last year's homeland security bill was held up by a single issue: whether employees of the new department would be guaranteed collective bargaining rights and civil service protections. The president opposed the guarantees. He used the issue to win the 2002 congressional elections, and he got the bill he wanted. The administration quickly deployed its enhanced powers to deny collective bargaining rights to 56,000 newly federalized airport screeners.
So it is particularly disheartening that at labor's hour of maximum peril, some union leaders are doing their best to hand ammunition to their enemies. A report this month by James R. Thompson, a former Republican governor of Illinois, found that many officers and directors of Ullico Inc., a union-owned insurer, had made themselves rich at shareholders' expense. Thompson said they should return about $6 million in profits they made on stock trades.
The scandal has set trade unionists against each other. That is good news because it means that many labor leaders -- among them AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and John Wilhelm, president of the hotel and restaurant workers union -- think it's an outrage for workers' representatives to behave like Enron executives. This week, Ron Gettelfinger, president of the United Auto Workers, called on Ullico's chairman and chief executive, Robert Georgine, to resign "and end this embarrassment to the labor movement."
Indeed. Organized labor's greatest asset is its moral standing as an advocate for social justice and a fair deal for employees. If ever there was a moment when labor leaders needed to hold themselves to the highest standards and avoid any sort of self-dealing, this is it.
American workers deserve honest unions. That means they also deserve an administration that doesn't see disabling the labor movement as one of its essential political goals. In their letter, the pro-labor Republicans argued that there are "better ways to help rank-and-file members obtain useful information about their unions." Too bad there's not much of an audience in these partisan days for such sweet reasonableness.