From Mark Hemingway in Reason Magazine, When Open Government Slams Shut:
Consider the case of organized labor. For all of the Democratic Party’s grandstanding about campaign finance transparency, documenting their biggest fund raising source turns out to be difficult at best. Contribution disclosures, as pored over by nonpartisan watchdog the Center for Responsive Politics, tell us that 10 of the top 20 biggest political donors to federal elections since 2002 have been unions. But even though many of these (such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) are organizations comprising public-sector workers, their spending habits remain largely beyond scrutiny.
Union spending disclosures on political and organizing activities are governed by a separate set of rules that date back to the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) of 1959, which was passed to address then-rampant union corruption. Now, one can debate the constitutionality of forcing campaign finance disclosures, but to the extent that these laws are trumpeted as good for democracy the comparative lack of union transparency demonstrates that existing requirements present a wildly political, incomplete, and lopsided picture.
The Department of Labor over the years has been very selective in its enforcement of LMRDA. The George W. Bush administration was arguably the first to change that. Even though union bosses were required to file an LM-30 form with the Department of Labor disclosing whether they were being paid on the side by companies doing business with the union, only 96 LM-30 forms were submitted in 2004. Over 13,000 LM-30 forms were filed in 2005 thanks to Bush administration enforcement efforts. The Bush administration also required unions to itemize expenses and staff salaries for the first time on the LM-2, another financial disclosure form that unions are required to submit to the Labor Department.
That move toward transparency paid off. In 2009, a Safeway bakery clerk was elected head of a powerful Denver grocers union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, after the new required itemizations revealed that the union’s longtime leader had, among other things, put two relatives on six-figure salaries and used union dues to pay for expenses such as hefty bar tabs and NFL tickets.
Upon being elected with the help of over $400 million in union cash, the Obama administration immediately rolled back Bush’s union disclosure requirements. But those few years’ worth of detailed LM-2 forms were illuminating, to say the least.
A 2012 Wall Street Journal analysis of LM-2 data found that between 2005 and 2011, unions spent $3.3 billion on a broad range of political activities, such as persuading union members to vote for preferred candidates and using union resources and labor for campaigns, that went undisclosed. That’s in addition to the $1.1 billion in campaign contributions they reported to the Federal Election Commission. Further, it’s worth noting that public-sector unions are exempt from any LMRDA reporting requirements, so The Wall Street Journal‘s analysis of LM-2 forms still doesn’t begin to capture how much money unions spend on politics.
And yet there is virtually no effort by either major party to make union spending more transparent. Indeed, when the then-Democratic Congress considered the DISCLOSE Act in 2010—an unsuccessful attempt to counteract the effects of Citizens United—the legislation contained language to exempt from scrutiny “funds attributable to dues, fees, or assessments which are paid by individuals on a regular, periodic basis.” More precisely, unions would have been exempt from the law’s attempt to track cash transfers to pay for election ads.
The outrage over Citizens United from the left is selective at best. I would support full disclosure of all campaign contributions and contributors, but only if it applies equally to every organization equally. That requirement alone will be enough to kill any serious campaign reform.