By Nick DAngelo
In September 2011, I was asked to join Democracy Matters, our campus’ pro-campaign finance reform group, to give a conservative perspective. Despite confusion by some because of the group’s name, Democracy Matters is a non-partisan organization that stresses the removal of big money from the political process.
As president of the Union College Republicans, I’m proud to put forward a right-wing argument for the necessity of this type of reform. First, disclosure of funds should be a fundamental part of fostering an open democratic process. Second, labor unions remain a larger part of the problem than even corporations.
For the better part of the decade, it was the Republican Party who led the charge to provide full disclosure of campaign donations. Even during the 2012 primary campaign, candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have expressed mixed feelings about the role of super PACs, campaign fundraisers that are separate from candidates’ personal organizations, stating that the committees limit the control they have over their own campaigns.
In the contentious Massachusetts U.S. Senate race, it was Republican Scott Brown who challenged supposed-middle-class-advocate Elizabeth Warren to limit the role of outside money in the campaign—she refused.
In 2000, the Wall Street Journal editorial board pushed for financial disclosure, and Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell agreed, asking, “Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?”
As recently as 2007, Speaker John Boehner stated, “I think what we ought to do is we ought to have full disclosure, full disclosure of all the money that we raise and how it is spent. And I think sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
The 2010 Citizen United decision by the Supreme Court changed the conversation. Under the guise of protecting the First Amendment, both sides have ended the conversation regarding campaign finance reform—and it’s wrong.
It’s erroneous that individuals and organizations can shape the political process anonymously through large sums of money. The conservative view must be that information regarding the money contributed should be disclosed in order to strive for free and open elections.
Many liberal advocates for campaign finance reform note the influence wielded by corporations, but neglect to mention the much larger political role of labor unions. I will not deny that corporations play a larger role in the political process than may be appropriate, but if we want to have a serious discussion, reform unions must be on the table.
Of the top 15 political contributors in the United States, 11 of them are labor unions. Three of them are corporations, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and AT&T, and one of them is a liberal progressive political action committee.
In 2010, two of the nation’s largest unions, the American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employers and the Service Employees International Union planned to spend a combined and astounding $100 million defending incumbent Democrats. A third, the AFL-CIO refused to release its number, benefiting from the same Citizens United decision that many liberals criticize.
Moreover, unions contain a vital political power that corporations do not: control over third parties. In Schenectady, three separate unions control ballot access for the Conservative, Independence and Working Families parties. As a result, those three lines nearly always go to the Democrat candidate, as they did during the competitive 2011 mayoral election. Without union involvement in the political process, Gary McCarthy would not be our mayor.
Many of my opponents will say that unions should remain an active part of the political process and differ from corporations because they represent their members. But organized labor represents just 12 percent of our nation’s workforce. And the motives of both corporations and unions are the same. Corporations work for the benefit of their shareholders, seeking maximum return for minimum investment. Unions work for the benefit of their members, seeking maximum pay for minimum work.
This is the conservative argument: make elections fair and balanced by requiring campaigns to disclose their financiers and fight against labor unions that are continuing to choke the democratic process. If we want to have a serious discussion about getting big money out of politics, let’s start right here and now.