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Labor of Love

A battle to cut government oversight of union spending.

12:00 AM, Jul 20, 2007 • By WHITNEY BLAKE
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WHILE THE OVERNIGHT "SLUMBER PARTY" in the Senate made headlines Tuesday night, a vote that night in the House on an amendment to the Department of Labor appropriations bill was largely ignored, but its significance was anything but trivial.

House and Senate Democrats set their sights on a branch of the Labor Department that regulates and monitors union activity, the Office of Labor-Management Standards, and decided that the agency's proposed budget for FY 2008 should be cut by some 20 percent. This move would actually reduce the amount that was appropriated to OLMS in FY 2007.

Rep. John Kline of Minnesota's 2nd District, a Republican, introduced an http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/D?d110:7:./temp/ bdJBIB::|/bss/d110query.html">amendment that would restore funding for the OLMS to the 2007 level, but it failed by a vote of 237 to 186. The vote tally contained a few surprising (and some not-so-surprising) switches of the aisle, with some Democrats from moderate districts--and twice as many Republicans with sizeable union constituencies--abandoning the party line.

While organized labor is one of the Democratic party's largest contributors, giving $56.7 million in the 2006 midterm elections, some Democrats couldn't side with them in this battle. Eight Democrats voted with the Republicans. Many of them were vulnerable freshmen from relatively conservative districts. Brad Ellsworth from Indiana's 8th District; Harry Mitchell from Arizona's 5th District, and North Carolina's Heath Shuler (11th District) all voted in favor of the amendment. So did Rep. Tim Mahoney, from Florida's 16th District (Mark Foley's district), who is listed as one of political scientist Larry Sabato's "Freshman Fifteen", a group facing an uphill reelection battle. None of their offices responded to requests for comment.

And 16 Republicans sided with the majority and struck down the bill, which was a little more unanticipated. Ray LaHood from the 18th District of Illinois, a conservative on most issues, supporting free trade and voting against the Employee Free Choice Act (both anti-union positions), didn't vote in lockstep with his party this time. The EFCA would have allowed unions to represent employees if a majority of them signed cards authorizing a union, instead of if a majority had voted in favor of unionization through a secret-ballot election.

Mark Kirk, another Illinois representative who hails from the upper-middle class 10th District, holds the same record as LaHood, but also voted against the Kline amendment. Neither representative's office supplied explanations when requested.

Fellow Illinoisan Peter Roskam, a freshman who replaced staunch conservative Henry Hyde in the 6th District, also voted against the Employee Free Choice Act, but against the Kline amendment just a few months later. Roskam released a statement through his press secretary, Matthew Vriesema, saying, among other things, "In Illinois 16 percent of workers are unionized and I am proud to advocate for their best interests."

Of the 16 Republicans, only half voted for the Employee Free Choice Act, with a sizable New Jersey contingent voting in favor: Frank LoBiondo from the 2nd District, James Saxton of the 3rd District, Chris Smith of the 4th District, and Michael Ferguson of the 7th District. An even smaller percentage voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement in July 2005; of the 15 in office at the time, only five opposed the measure.
Only one Democrat crossed party lines once for either vote--Dan Boren from Oklahoma's 2nd District, who voted against the Employee Free Choice Act, but also against CAFTA.