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'Paycheck protection' or partisan ploy?

The measure's real purpose is to weaken unions, not to get special-interest money out of politics or to give members control over their money.

October 12, 2005|Ezra Klein | EZRA KLEIN is a writer for the American Prospect.

IN ABOUT A MONTH, Californians -- at least a couple of them -- will trudge forth to mark ballots for the much-ballyhooed special election. And, if most early polls are to be believed, the part they're most likely to pass is Proposition 75, the "paycheck protection" initiative. Which is a shame, because Proposition 75 makes no sense, would have no effect and is really just a partisan ploy. Yes, California needs to get the money out of politics, but this isn't the way.

Before we get into all that, a bit of background: The earliest glimmers of "paycheck protection" came in 1968, when Harry Beck, a member of the Communications Workers of America, sued the union because he didn't want his dues helping to elect Hubert Humphrey. Fast-forward to 1996, when Republicans, looking for a way to shut down the then-fearsome AFL-CIO political organization, translated Beck's idea into initiative form.

The argument for the initiative was simple: It's wrong for a union to take a portion of a member's dues -- without asking -- and put it toward a political campaign. Instead, the union should be forced to make members sign yearly permission slips, specifically agreeing to have their money used for politics. The aim was obvious: to cut off the flow of union dollars toward Democrats. Now, California union members can opt out of political contributions, but Proposition 75 would force members of public employee unions to opt in (and generally, requiring active participation rather than passive agreement yields less involvement). Similar initiatives have passed in five states; Californians rejected the idea in 1998. But now, in the form of Proposition 75, it's back.

As a concept, the whole thing's a bit odd. After all, are corporations forced to seek shareholder consent each time they dip a toe into political waters? Of course not. Americans are generally comfortable with the idea that as long as members of an organization elect their leadership (as union members do), they need not sign off on every decision made by their representatives. It's called representative democracy, and it's how we run our country. So if Republicans tell you they're only doing this to protect the little guy's hard-earned money, don't believe it.

But here's another problem with paycheck protection measures: They simply don't work. This was widely admitted back when California was considering Proposition 226 in 1998, it's been proved in the states that have adopted such measures, and it's known by everyone involved in the campaign now. Much like the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law -- which limits political donations but allows so-called 527 organizations to spend unlimited amounts for political advocacy as long as they don't specifically advocate election outcomes -- Proposition 75 would set no limits on such activities as issue promotion and voter education.

Remember those ads in which teachers railed against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget and begged voters to restore money to schools? Proposition 75 would have had nothing to say about them because they didn't advocate an election result. And if all the measure does is force unions to slightly reword their ads, well, forgive my cynicism, but who cares? When paycheck protection was passed in Washington state, the unions simply created political education PACs and ended up raising much more than ever before.

Let me be clear: Getting the money out of politics is a good idea. Breaking the hold of special interests -- unions included -- over Sacramento is similarly laudable. But when Schwarzenegger steps out and complains that even after the recall election, "the same union bosses are there, the same legislators are there, the same special interests, the corporations, all of those forces are still there," and then proceeds to attack the unions while accepting enormous amounts of money from the corporations, it's a bit hard not to doubt his sincerity on the issue. And when he puts his considerable muscle behind an initiative as useless and hole-filled as Proposition 75, reform-minded watchers will be forgiven for throwing up their hands and stalking off into the night.

That's because Proposition 75 isn't about reform, it's about diversion. For their supporters, the beauty of paycheck protection measures isn't that they get the money out of politics or that they give union members control over their own money, it's that the propositions themselves divert union resources during elections. Schwarzenegger already saw his numbers tumble after last year's concentrated union offensive, and he'd much prefer not to watch his beloved initiatives wither in the face of another one. Thus, Proposition 75 -- a cannon-fodder proposal that'll do little to clean up Sacramento but will distract the unions from focusing firepower on other portions of the ballot.

And that's a shame. Schwarzenegger could have stymied special interests by pushing for comprehensive campaign finance reform, maybe modeled after Arizona's wildly successful Clean Elections Act. But he didn't. Nor did he go after all the special interests. Paycheck protection acts have a cousin that targets corporations, called -- sensibly enough -- "stockholder protection acts." Unfortunately, that little piggy seems to have stayed home this time.

And so, in the final accounting, this is what Schwarzenegger has come to. The guy we elected to kick the special interests out of Sacramento has dedicated himself to a law that restricts some of the special interests none of the time. It's girlie-man behavior, and voters shouldn't reward it.

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