Why is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid nervous? As Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s recent confirmation hearings reminded us, his party now has an unassailable supermajority. Sixty votes in the Senate is like five on the Supreme Court. If your coalition holds together, you can pretty much get away with anything until the next election.
Yet Mr. Reid’s statement about Minnesota Sen. Al Franken’s victory after months of legal challenges over a close, disputed, and likely vote-fraud-riddled election sounded almost downbeat. “The challenges we face are not Democratic or Republican in nature. They are America’s challenges and they are too great to be solved by partisanship,” Mr. Reid argued. “Senate Republicans must understand that Sen.-elect Franken’s election does not abdicate them from the responsibility of governing.”
Remove the bipartisan boosterism and what Mr. Reid really meant is that he is not confident about holding his party together on tough votes. He’d like to have a way of avoiding the blame for that failure, but that’s become more difficult now that Republicans don’t have the numbers to filibuster.
Take the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Right now, Capitol Hill is buzzing with talk of a possible compromise on the No. 1 priority of organized labor, but the bill still faces significant, perhaps perilous hurdles. Currently, EFCA would commit the country to three awful things and a host of smaller legal larcenies.
The most well-known provision would effectively end the secret ballot for union organization elections, replacing them with “card check” sign-ups. Card check would replace the anonymity of the ballot box with the unwanted scrutiny of the public clipboard. It would render workers more susceptible to peer pressure and blatant union intimidation and thus make greater unionization all but inevitable.
Such a fundamental change in labor law is pretty hard to defend. Critics attacked, charging that union bosses wanted to do away with the private ballot and the charge stuck. No amount of misdirection could shake off the feeling that this was really indefensible behavior. So now card check looks likely to go away until after the midterm elections. But that still leaves a bill that will be extremely costly to the American economy.
EFCA would also impose mandatory arbitration — call it arbitration at gunpoint, if you like — on unions and new firms at an impasse in negotiations over the first contract. Previously, firms were required to negotiate in good faith but never forced to sign. Under EFCA, after 120 days a federal mediator would come in and impose a contract.
Worse, this isn’t simply about representation. Other issues come bundled with the package. Unions will push for higher wages and, especially, benefits. That might not be so bad until you look at the devilish details. As part of those benefit settlements, unions would force firms and workers into the unions’ expensive and increasingly insolvent pension plans. If you thought your 401(k) was performing poorly, just wait.
These are not easy changes to sell, even with a Democratic supermajority in both houses of Congress. The House of Representatives decided to delay a vote until such time as a bill clears the Senate, and there’s no guarantee that will happen. Critics are shifting their focus from card check to gunpoint arbitration and union pensions and will mount a furious assault.
Certainly, ditching card check makes EFCA’s passage more likely but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell now has an easier job than Mr. Reid. Mr. Reid must hold together a rickety 60-vote coalition. If Republicans hold together, as looks likely, then Mr. McConnell’s job is to add one vote.
Before Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties he came out against EFCA, and not only because of card check. That’s one. But suppose Mr. Specter flips. That still leaves several prominent Democrats who are not yet sold on EFCA and a few who’ve aired deep misgivings about the legislation.
The usual list of possible holdouts includes Mr. Specter, and Sens. Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Michael Bennet, Mary L. Landrieu and Dianne Feinstein. If Republicans can convince a single Democrat to buck the party and vote against cloture, Mr. Reid’s worst fears will be realized.
There would be a wonderful irony in that failure. The chief reason for keeping card check part of EFCA so far was that unions insisted on a whole loaf or no loaf. In the meantime, President Obama’s honeymoon has ended, the economy has gotten worse, and the issue of underfunded union pensions has become more important than ever.
Jeremy Lott is editor of Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch newsletter and author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.”