Although the Roberts Court’s egregious Citizens United decision gives wealthy corporations a free hand to spend unlimited money influencing elections, it still permits Congress to “regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements.” Accordingly, Congress is now considering a bill known as the DISCLOSE Act, which requires corporations and unions to disclose who is funding their electioneering campaigns so that the American people at least have some idea who is buying elected officials.
Predictably, conservative interest groups widely oppose the bill, and they have responded to it with an equally predictable tactic: demonizing unions. The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page warns that the bill “abandons the longstanding policy of treating unions and businesses equally.” The American Conservative Union labels this so-called exemption for unions “a blatant partisan move.” House Republicans labeled the bill the “Democrats’ union bailout.”
Had any of these right-wing sources actually bothered to read the bill, they would have learned that this attack is false. Page 40 of the bill specifically states that “[a]ny labor organization” is covered by the bill’s provisions governing donor disclosure.
Hilariously, the Chamber of Commerce responds to this clear language not by admitting that the bill applies to unions after all, but by complaining that unions will still be exempt because they don’t take in enough money:
The legislation would require corporations and labor unions to report donors who have given as little as $600 during the year. Because an average union member pays annual dues far beneath that threshold, most unions would not be required to disclose their donors even when they spend millions of dollars on political advertising.
The blanket restrictions on political participation by government contractors are effectively inapplicable to unions. The legislation, as amended in committee, would prohibit many government contractors from making any independent expenditures or funding any electioneering communications if the contractor has a government contract valued at $7,000,000 or more. Although a number of unions hold government contracts, few -– if any -– hold contracts that reach that amount.
Essentially, the Chamber is arguing that there is no difference between a mine worker who writes a small-dollar check to a union campaign to elect their preferred candidate, and a mining CEO who spends millions of dollars to fill the government with friendly lawmakers and judges. But this is absurd. The reason why the DISCLOSE Act exempts small-dollar donors is not to enact some absurd “union bailout,” it is because individual small-dollar donors have an insignificant influence on elections (although they combined donations can be significant), while large-dollar donors can actually change the course of an election if they are willing to dump enough money into a race.
Moreover, it is equally absurd to claim that unions are capable of competing financially with corporations, even if you combine all of their members’ small-dollar contributions. According to the AFL-CIO’s 2009 financial disclosure form (available here), the AFL-CIO’s national headquarters had less than $83 million in total assets. By contrast, BP earned over $10 billion in profits in a single quarter, and that’s just one of many wealthy corporations who have an interest in shaping US elections.
The Chamber’s objection really has nothing to do with unions. Small companies which earn “only” $6 million in government contracts are also exempt from the relevant parts of the DISCLOSE Act. In reality, the Chamber is just upset that Americans may find out who funds their shady electioneering campaigns.