Harry Reid surely must have meant the unions when he complained about buying elections.
By Kimberly Strassel
Harry Reid is under a lot of job-retention stress these days, so Americans might forgive him the occasional word fumble. When he recently took to the Senate floor to berate the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch for spending "unlimited money" to "rig the system" and "buy elections," the majority leader clearly meant to be condemning unions.
It's an extraordinary thing, in a political age obsessed with campaign money, that nobody scrutinizes the biggest, baddest, "darkest" spenders of all: organized labor. The IRS is muzzling nonprofits; Democrats are "outing" corporate donors; Jane Mayer is probably working on part 89 of her New Yorker series on the "covert" Kochs. Yet the unions glide blissfully, unmolestedly along. This lack of oversight has led to a union world that today acts with a level of campaign-finance impunity that no other political giver—conservative outfits, corporate donors, individuals, trade groups—could even fathom.
Mr. Reid was quite agitated on the Senate floor about "unlimited money," by which he must have been referring to the $4.4 billion that unions had spent on politics from 2005 to 2011 alone, according to this newspaper. The Center for Responsive Politics' list of top all-time donors from 1989 to 2014 ranks Koch Industries No. 59. Above Koch were 18 unions, which collectively spent $620,873,623 more than Koch Industries ($18 million). Even factoring in undisclosed personal donations by the Koch brothers, they are a rounding error in union spending.
Mr. Reid was similarly heated over the tie-up between outside groups and politicians, by which he surely meant the unions who today openly operate as an arm of the Democratic Party. The press may despise the Kochs, but even it isn't stupid enough to claim they are owned by the GOP. Most outside conservatives groups, including the Koch-supported Americans for Prosperity, back candidates and positions that challenge the Republican line. And in any event, every conservative 501(c)(4) is so terrified of the hay the media and regulators would make over even a hint of coordination with the GOP, they keep a scrupulous distance.
Unions, as 501(c)(5) organizations, are technically held to the same standards against coordination with political parties. Yet no Democrat or union official today even troubles to maintain that fiction. Hundreds upon hundreds of the delegates to the 2012 Democratic convention were union members. They were in the same room as party officials, plotting campaign strategies. The question therefore is how much of that $4.4 billion in union spending was at the disposal of the Democratic Party—potentially in violation of a bajillion campaign-finance rules?
As for Mr. Reid's complaint that some "rig the system to benefit themselves," that was undoubtedly a reference to the overt, transactional nature of union money. Nobody doubts the Kochs and many corporations support candidates who they hope will push for free-market principles. Though imagine the political outcry if David or Charles Koch openly conditioned dollars for a politician on policies to benefit Koch Industries?
In the past months alone, unions demanded an exemption to a tax under ObamaCare; the administration gave it. They demanded an end to plans to "fast track" trade deals; Mr. Reid killed it. They wanted more money for union job training; President Obama put it in his budget. Everybody understands—the press matter-of-fact reports it—that these policy giveaways are to ensure unions open their coffers to help Mr. Reid keep the Senate in November. The quid pro quo is even more explicit and self-serving at the state level, where public-sector unions elect politicians who promise to pay them more. If the CEO of Exxon tried this, the Justice Department would come knocking. The unions do it daily.
Democrats hope to make a campaign theme out of conservative "dark" money, something else Mr. Reid knows about. In addition to other spending, unions have been aggressively funneling money into their own "dark" groups. One of these is the heavyweight 501(c)(4) Patriot Majority USA. Patriot Majority doesn't disclose its donors, though a Huffington Post investigation found it had been "fueled" in 2012 by $2.3 million in union donations. Amusingly, Patriot Majority used its undisclosed money on a campaign to expose the Koch brothers' "front" groups. Oh, and Patriot Majority is run by Craig Varoga, a former aide and close ally of . . . Harry Reid.
The unions have had a special interest in funding attacks on conservative groups, since it has led to the IRS's regulatory muzzling of 501(c)(4) speech. Under the new rule, conservative 501(c)(4)s are restricted in candidate support; unions can do what they want. Conservative groups are stymied in get-out-the-vote campaigns; unions can continue theirs. Conservative outfits must count up volunteer hours; not unions.
So now, in addition to a system in which organized labor spends "unlimited money" to "rig the system to benefit themselves" and "buy elections," (to quote Mr. Reid), Mr. Obama's IRS has made sure to shut up anyone who might compete with unions or complain about them.
Supporters of campaign-finance rules never want to acknowledge that their maze of regulations serve primarily as a tool for savvy politicians to manipulate and silence opponents. For proof, they need only listen to Mr. Reid—who is pretty savvy, and who didn't misspeak after all.