The Wall Street Journal published a stunning story this morning, reporting that new analysis shows union political spending is about four times higher than previously thought. Moreover, union political spending now exceeds direct donations:
The usual measure of unions' clout encompasses chiefly what they spend supporting federal candidates through their political-action committees, which are funded with voluntary contributions, and lobbying Washington, which is a cost borne by the unions' own coffers. These kinds of spending, which unions report to the Federal Election Commission and to Congress, totaled $1.1 billion from 2005 through 2011, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The unions' reports to the Labor Department capture an additional $3.3 billion that unions spent over the same period on political activity.
The costs reported to the Labor Department range from polling fees, to money spent persuading union members to vote a certain way, to bratwursts to feed Wisconsin workers protesting at the state capitol last year. Much of this kind of spending comes not from members' contributions to a PAC but directly from unions' dues-funded coffers. There is no requirement that unions report all of this kind of spending to the Federal Election Commission, or FEC.
The union spin on this revelation is impressively brazen:
Laurence E. Gold, counsel to the AFL-CIO, said the Labor Department reports show that "unions by law are the most transparent institutions about their electoral spending.
Of course, the article also notes the only reason we have this new information is because of disclosure requirements put in place by the Bush administration:
The new figures come from a little-known set of annual reports to the Labor Department in which local unions, their national parents and labor federations have been required to detail their spending on politics and lobbying since 2005.
As I detailed in THE WEEKLY STANDARD last year, unions have lobbied the Obama administration to roll back a number of Bush administration transparency requirements for unions:
The Bush administration was arguably the first to require unions to make meaningful financial disclosure, and their leaders to report conflicts of interest. The change had tangible effects. An unassuming Safeway bakery clerk was elected head of a powerful Denver grocers’ union in 2009 after she revealed that the union’s influential leader had put two relatives on salary for six figures and was using union dues to support a lavish lifestyle that included hefty bar tabs and NFL tickets. The corrupt union boss’s ouster was made possible because the Bush Labor Department for the first time had mandated itemized expenses and staff salaries on the LM-2 union financial disclosure form.
That might be the first and last union election, however, where financial transparency plays a decisive role. Since then, Obama’s labor secretary Hilda Solis has rolled back Bush administration LM-2 transparency requirements and stopped enforcing the requirement that union bosses disclose on form LM-30 whether they’re being paid on the side by companies doing business with the union. (In 2004, unions filed 96 LM-30 forms. In 2005, that number was 13,326, thanks to the Bush administration’s enforcement efforts.) The Obama administration has also stopped requiring financial disclosure for oft-abused union trusts or strike funds.
Now that this new report is generating waves of unfavorable publicity for union electioneering, one might expect a push to require even less spending information to be given over to the Department of Labor.
Today's revelation that union spending exceeds direct donations is also interesting in light of Obama campaign adviser David Plouffe's statement today that "You've got a few very wealthy people lining up trying to purchase the White House for Mr. Romney." When union political spending, most of that taken through union dues, exceeds direct donations and 92 percent of union money goes to Democrats—it's very hard to argue the Koch Brothers are buying the election.