- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2002

Desperate for new bait with which to hook their congressional colleagues, the crusaders for new restrictions on political speech (also known as campaign-finance reform) have gone after the Enron scandal like piranhas.

In the Democrats' radio address last weekend, liberal California Rep. Nancy Pelosi sounded the alarm: "The sudden collapse of Enron, which has been so catastrophic to so many people who have lost their jobs and their hard-earned pensions, has clearly demonstrated the need for meaningful campaign-finance reform. It is an opportunity that we must seize now."

The reasoning goes something like this: Corrupt corporations like Enron are throwing money around Washington like drunken sailors, corrupting the political process and looting pensions as they go. In the minds of Mrs. Pelosi and others, the corruption inside Enron justifies new restrictions on the political speech exercised by all kinds of groups across America.

Under closer scrutiny, however, this argument doesn't hold water.

In 2000, roughly $2.4 million in campaign contributions can be traced to Enron, with 72 percent of such contributions going to Republicans. Apologists for campaign-finance reform thus argue that these contributions are somehow related to the company's corrupt business practices, and imply that Republicans are tainted to a greater degree than Democrats.

Let's compare these figures to those for organized labor.

In the same 2000 cycle, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) contributed more than $8 million to politicians, with more than 90 percent going to Democrats. AFSCME is by far the largest union contributor to political campaigns in America.

While AFSCME has not gone belly up in such a spectacular way as Enron, it has had a colorful history with its own corruption. The union has been implicated in an elaborate contribution swap scheme involving former International Brotherhood of Teamsters President Ron Carey and more than $880,000 in embezzled Teamsters funds and $538,000 in illegal contributions to Mr. Carey's 1996 re-election campaign.

In another example, AFSCME's massive District Council 37 embezzlement and vote-fraud scandal led to more than 20 union officials pleading guilty to a wide array of corruption charges. Prosecutor Jane Tully told a New York court that DC37 had a long history of vote fraud, dating to at least 1992. She said that one boss who entered a plea of guilty admitted rigging elections at union locals for $1 a vote. If a candidate for a local's presidency needed 300 fake votes to win, the price would be $300, she said.

The second-largest union political player is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has its own corruption problems. Most recently, the union's Local 32B-32J is accused by credible dissident Paul Pamias of forcing local staff to take a vacation day on primary day, September 11, and work for labor-supported mayoral candidate Mark Green. Similar instances are alleged for Sept. 25 (the rescheduled primary day), and again on Oct. 11, according to the National Legal and Policy Center.

In all, unions have contributed more than $351 million to politicians since 1990, with more than 93 percent going to Democrat candidates and committees.

Curiously, the advocates of McCain-style campaign-finance reform rarely cite union political practices and corruption as reasons to adopt their prescription for what allegedly plagues America's political system.

That's probably because the version of campaign-finance reform the House of Representatives will soon consider leaves unions virtually unaffected by new restrictions.

The soft money ban that is the centerpiece of campaign-finance reform would have virtually no effect on union political activity. Testifying before the Senate Committee on Rules in April 2000, AFL-CIO Associate General Counsel Laurence Gold admitted that most of the union's political activity doesn't involve soft-money.

Instead, modern labor unions have incorporated political activity into their general operations, paying for it out of general union treasuries and out of the reach of existing or proposed federal campaign laws. The 27 field operatives the National Education Association (NEA) sent into targeted congressional districts in 2000 would be unaffected, as would the 70 field operatives the AFL-CIO dispatched to support Democrat congressional candidates that same year.

Voter identification activities, direct mail to union households, voter turnout activities, union workers receiving paid "holidays" to campaign for union-supported candidates, are all unaffected.

Most distressing, the advocates of campaign-finance reform steadfastly refuse to give union members more control over how, and if, their dues are spent on politics. No corporation in America including Enron can take money directly out of an employee's paycheck and give it to politicians. Yet, in effect, union officials do this every day. None of that would change under McCain-Feingold.

In response to the Enron collapse, President Bush has rightly focused on reforming the federal pension rules that helped contribute to the scandal's impact on employees and retirees. Sen. Mitch McConnell is right when he notes that "soft money had as much to do with the collapse of Enron as Martha Stewart had to with the collapse of K-Mart."

Supporters of campaign-finance reform are taking advantage of the Enron collapse to advance their own narrow agenda. But if they're going to invoke corruption as an excuse to clamp down on political speech, they shouldn't leave corrupt unions off the hook.

Ron Nehring is a senior consultant for Americans for Tax Reform.

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