Grassroots activists are proving more successful than Congress in bringing about campaign finance reform. While the Senate is deadlocked amid squabbling over the spending caps and donor restrictions of the McCain-Feingold bill, crusaders outside the Beltway have already enacted measures giving people an improved ability to make their own choices in supporting political candidates and causes.
The success of these activists is directly related to the reform they champion: political choice. A significant number of Americans are currently being forced to fund political campaigns which they may know nothing about and which they may not even support. People work hard for their money, and they want to decide how to spend it. Giving these people the power to make their own political decisions has garnered very strong support in numerous polls, but has yet to be taken seriously in the debate on Capitol Hill.
Labor unions flex their political muscle with money collected from mandatory members' dues. In 1996, this allowed organized labor to play a high-profile role when it collectively spent well over $100 million on political projects. These expenditures were overwhelmingly geared toward supporting and electing Democrats, despite the fact that an estimated 40% of union members consider themselves Republican. Those unlucky people went to the ballot box to vote for one party while backing the other with their pocketbook.
Not only is taking payroll deductions for political purposes without giving workers any input a denial of political choice, it is also against the law. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that union members can request and receive a refund for any portion of their dues not spent on workplace-related activities like collective bargaining. Unfortunately, most rank-and-file members aren't aware of this fact. Union leaders are loathe to inform their members of it or make such reimbursements, so the collection of dues usually continues unabated.
Americans want to see this unfair practice stopped. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll asking "Should labor unions need to get permission from individual union members to use for political purposes?" found 82% approval. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found 72% of those sampled agree with the statement "Unions should be required to get written permission from each worker prior to using union dues for political purposes."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott did raise the issue during the campaign finance debate when he introduced an amendment to the McCain-Feingold bill requiring unions to get prior consent from each member before using their dues for political purposes. The amendment, however, was not so much a noble act as a politically expedient one used to kill the legislation. Opponents -- comprised mainly of Democrats at risk of losing one of their most productive cash cows -- dubbed the amendment a "poison pill." The resulting filibusters kept both the amendment and the bill from coming to a vote.
Grassroots activists, however, are promoting and protecting political choice where Congress has failed. Through initiatives and referendums, they are taking the issue directly to the people and winning. Washington State voters approved Initiative 134 in 1992, prohibiting mandatory union dues from being used for political activity. States like Arizona, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon and Utah are also in the process of writing their own political choice ballot initiatives.
No state is more committed to enacting such reform right now than California. The Campaign Reform Initiative (CRI) is expected to go before voters on the June 1998 ballot. It amends existing law to: 1) prohibit foreign contributions to state and local campaigns, 2) require employers to gain annual written permission from each employee before making payroll deductions for political purposes at the state and local level and 3) require labor unions to receive annual written permission from each member before using mandatory dues for state and local political activity.
Early polling shows support for the CRI is as strong as 85% among likely voters. Support among Democrats is two-to-one, proving this is not the partisan issue it was characterized as during Senate debate. Union members support the CRI by a ratio of four-to-one.
The campaign finance reform train has left the station, but the politicians are clearly not on it. Self-interest, a lack of political will and a failure to grasp the true roots of the problem are dimming prospects for reform in Congress. The success of true reform is solely a people-driven engine that is overcoming tremendous odds to secure the freedom of political choice.
-David Almasi is director of publications and media relations at The National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Comments may be sent to him at DAlmasi@nationalcenter.org.
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