The Bush administration says the Democrat-controlled Congress is trying to shortchange the lone federal agency responsible for ensuring unions spend their dues legally — an effort Republicans consider political payback that must be rebuffed.
At least two Republican senators are expected to propose legislation to restore nearly 4 percent of funding the House cut from the Office of Labor-Management Standards, Capitol Hill aides said.
“Union members are entitled to know where their money is going,” Labor Department Secretary Elaine L. Chao said. “Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the department’s budget goes to OLMS — the one federal entity charged with protecting union members from corruption — and it is the one singled out for budget cuts.”
The House last week approved $45.7 million for OLMS for fiscal year 2008 — $2 million less than in 2007, and about $11 million short of the Bush administration’s budget request. It was the only major Labor agency to get less money than in 2007.
“When it came to the office whose responsibility is to find the crooks who are stealing from union members, [Democrats] found a way to impose a 4 percent cut in that office,” said Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican, whose bid to restore OLMS funding to its 2007 level failed. “And what a shame that is.”
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, has questioned the need to give the agency more money when he said unions are complying with disclosure reporting requirements at a rate of 96 percent.
“I’d say if you are getting 96 percent, that’s an A — at least it was when I went to school,” Mr. Obey said.
The Labor Department says Mr. Obey is only referring to the percentage of unions who filled out their financial forms correctly — not the percentage of unions that were in compliance. The rate of unions who submitted disclosure reports on time last year was about 64 percent.
Labor activists say the department’s claim that the cut will significantly hurt the agency is political propaganda.
The agency’s budget increased 50 percent between 2001 and 2006, with staffing levels increasing 46 percent, said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal Washington think tank.
Some also have accused the Bush administration of using the OLMS to intimidate unions while turning a blind eye to corporate corruption.
“This agency has gone into some minute details over the affairs of unions that no corporation would stand for,” Mr. Eisenbrey said. “This is an agency that arguably is out of control.”
The Labor Department said OLMS budgets were slashed during President Clinton’s administration, and that its staffing levels are still below 1980 levels.
Republicans view the OLMS budget cut as the latest in a series of political paybacks by Democrats to organized labor, a longtime supporter of the party.
In the 2006 elections, organized labor gave $57.5 million to Democratic candidates and party committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
A Democratic move to make it easier for unions to organize was rejected last month in the Senate. Organized labor said the so-called “card-check” bill, which would have allowed unions to form after getting a majority of employees to sign a card or petition — as opposed to the long-standing practice of a secret-ballot election — was crucial to defend itself from anti-union employers. Opponents called the measure undemocratic.
OLMS, which ensures that private-sector unions conduct fair elections, operate in the public, report conflicts of interest and properly account for expenditure of union members’ dues, is considered the unions’ equivalent of the business-monitoring Securities and Exchange Commission.
OLMS investigators and auditors in the past six years referred cases to U.S. attorneys that resulted in 775 convictions and more than $70 million in restitution for union members, the Labor Department says.
The Senate Appropriations Committee also approved $45.7 million for the OLMS for fiscal year 2008, which begins Oct. 1. The chamber most likely will vote on the measure in September.