Tax Group Weighs Bush, McCain on Union Dues

By Ben Anderson | July 7, 2008 | 8:25 PM EDT

( - While the two leading Republican presidential candidates battle for the GOP nomination, a Washington-based tax reform advocate has weighed-in on an issue between Texas Governor George W Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain.

Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) President Grover Norquist praised Bush for taking a stand on so called "paycheck protection" - the right of union members to decide for themselves whether their union dues are spent on political campaign contributions.

McCain drew heavy criticism from Norquist for sponsoring campaign finance legislation (co-sponsored with Wisconsin Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold) which some say restricts the right of voters to express themselves through political campaign contributions.

Norquist hailed Bush for insisting on paycheck protection in any campaign reform legislation. According to Norquist, McCain's much-publicized bill "fails to protect members from union officials who siphon off membership dues for politics."

"The Feingold-McCain legislation would continue the ability of labor union bosses to take money from workers without their permission," Norquist said.

ATR is running television ads in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, calling on voters there to call McCain and urge him to drop his campaign finance legislation.

"He's the only Republican candidate approved by the liberal New York Times. Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Big Labor all endorse his top legislative priority," the ad says. "Senator John McCain - helping Democrats pass a campaign finance bill that would keep the Republican Party from fighting the liberal national media," according to the ATR ad.

"Yet McCain's bill would leave labor unions, trial lawyers and pro-abortion groups free to attack Republicans," the ATR ad continues. "Just like they did for Bill Clinton."

Labor unions political action wings are virtually untouched under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation which was highly contested in the past two sessions of Congress, along with its companion legislation in the House sponsored by Reps. Marty Meehan (D-MA) and Christopher Shays (R-CT).

But charitable advocacy groups will be subjected to a virtual gag order prior to federal elections, according to Capitol Hill sources.

Under McCain's proposal, less regulated "soft money" contributions to campaign committees would be prohibited within 60 days of a federal election. Another provision seeks to define "coordination" of independent spending by advocacy groups.

The legislation went so far as to prohibit separate associations between candidates and outside organizations that also affiliate with advocacy groups independent of a campaign.

But organized labor groups like the Teamsters, National Educators Association, AFL-CIO and others would be exempted from the restrictions placed on non-profit advocacy groups.

According to ATR policy analyst Ron Nehring, McCain's proposal and its companion legislation in the House "would have the effect of curbing citizen involvement in the political process while conspicuously leaving organized labor officials free to continue extracting millions of dollars in compulsory union dues for political use."

Ken Boehm of the National Legal and Policy Center, an organization which tracks union corruption, told earlier this year that the so-called campaign finance bills do nothing to control campaign finance abuses by organized labor.

"They totally ignore any of the union campaign finance abuses," Boehm said. "Unions historically and presently take their members' money without their permission and use it for political purposes."

Nehring said in an ATR policy brief that the two campaign finance measures "do nothing to make union officials more accountable for how they wage political and ideological warfare."

Under current law, individual citizens are permitted to make contributions of up to $1,000 to a candidate in a federal primary and general election campaign, and political action committees (PACs)are limited to $5,000 contributions.

Corporations are prohibited from making direct contributions to candidates. Soft-money contributions are less regulated than those to candidates, and are used for "party building" activities including voter registration drives, voter information campaigns and issue advocacy.

The two proposals, reportedly set for re-introduction in 2000, are pitting so-called reform against what some individuals and issue advocacy groups contend is the constitutional right of individuals and groups to free speech. The victims, opponents contend, are groups like the National Rifle Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and National Right to Life Committee.

An ACLU report issued last year called the Shays-Meehan bill "patently unconstitutional" in a number of ways. The report said "Shays-Meehan makes it harder for ethnic and racial minority, women and non-mainstream voices to be heard prior to an election."

The efforts to silence these and other advocacy and public interest groups in the final days of an election is bringing together unlikely bedfellows intent on defending their right to express their views on the issues and candidates.

Under the two proposals, soft money contributions would be prohibited within 60 days of a federal election and in a provision seeking to define "coordination," special interest groups would be prohibited from associating with third parties that are working on behalf of a federal campaign.