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The electoral clout of public employee unions

October 22, 2010 |  4:45 pm

At the risk of sounding like Juan Williams,  I was rattled Friday by the sight of this data point in the Wall Street Journal: The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is now the top-ranked spender on independent campaign efforts. The $87.5 million that AFSCME has devoted to commercials, phone banks and other efforts to elect the candidates it favors -- Democrats, presumably -- won't necessarily keep it atop this dubious leader board through Nov. 2. But it makes me wonder, again, whether there isn't something essentially wrong with public employees trying to handpick the people who control their pay and job security.

I feel the same unease about electioneering by government contractors. Call it my fear of the "Iron Triangle," or the symbiotic relationship between lawmakers and the public employees or contractors who benefit directly from the programs they support. Federal dollars flow out; campaign contributions flow back.

But here's where I run into a brick wall, mentally: Why should the people whose jobs depend on government sit on the sidelines while its leaders are chosen? Amid the attacks on government spending, shouldn't government employees be able to defend what they do? And why should working for the government deprive me of the right to speak?

It's hard to argue against that logic. And once you agree that AFSCME shouldn't be muzzled, I think you have to accept that the likes of Halliburton and Lockheed Martin shouldn't be either. That's one of the factors fueling the political arms race we're in today, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other advocates of smaller government feverishly raising and spending millions to counter the money raised and spent by unions and other proponents of the status quo.

Ultimately, I think the answer is to require more rapid disclosure of who's spending what to elect whom, and for people in my profession to put that information in front of voters. People care about such things; reports about the special-interest spending behind Propositions 16 and 17  helped turn California voters against them in June, in spite of their appealing descriptions. So as long as the disclosure is effective, voters should be able to recognize when they're being pushed to do something for a narrow corporate or union interest rather than their own.

Of course, if the disclosure doesn't reveal where the money is coming from,  then it isn't really effective.

-- Jon Healey




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