I’ve been a total skeptic of campaign finance reform for years, and I think history bears me out. The original premise of reform was to permit a candidate to gain access to public attention strictly on the merits of their candidacy, and for elected officials to enter office owing nothing to any special interests. Freed of those obligations, the theory goes, elected officials will be free to vote their conscience and in keeping with the wishes of their constituents, rather than the fat cats.
Now into the third decade of campaign finance reform lawmaking, with endless revisions designed to address the unintended consequences of previous iterations, the concept has finally reached its nadir in the City of New York, whose city council has just decided to pass a campaign finance reform law that nakedly tilts the game in favor of the most powerful special interest in that city’s politics. From the New York Times:
The new law would crack down on donations from lobbyists, strictly limit contributions from contractors who do business with the city, and allow developers to give only a fraction of what they once could.
But there is one group that would be untouched by the major overhaul of the campaign finance law approved by the City Council yesterday: the city’s powerful labor unions.
The unions, which have given millions to city candidates and provide critical backing in Council races, were excluded from the bill, which is expected to be signed into law by the mayor. The bill would go into effect over staggered periods as the city builds the needed databases to track people doing business with the city.
The changes have received broad support from government watchdog groups, who say the new campaign finance law will be among the most stringent in the country, sharply limiting influence and the appearance of influence of special-interest money on government policy.
Excluding labor groups from the restrictions illustrates the considerable strength unions retain in New York City politics, at a time when union power is waning elsewhere in the country. The new restrictions, political analysts say, will only magnify their power.
I’m curious. Who are these “government watchdog groups” who think this law is fair? (None of them are named in the story.) Aren’t they a little embarassed? No matter how you feel about the relative merits of unions, business, city contractors or developers, you can’t call it “fair” to restrict only some of these interests.
City residents, the constituents whose interests are supposedly at issue here, can be affected negatively by “pay to play” contracting, over-development, or special interest pro-business legislation. While the principle of campaign finance reform may be defective, it is not irrational to want to control those interests. But the public can also be affected negatively by overly generous pay and benefit packages to the city’s huge corps of employees, and by restrictive hiring and firing rules that keep incompetent people in vital positions.
Cities all over America have faced bankruptcy owing to excessive pension and pay obligations. Those contracts are not agreed to in a vacuum; they are a direct result of labor’s political power. Just ask Roy Romer, or anyone else who has been forced to run the LA Unified School District, where labor is given license to insert itself into every important decision.
Here is the City Council’s rationalization:
The City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, the daughter of a retired union electrician who was first elected in 1999, has received a total of nearly $70,000 in union contributions. One of her top aides, Maura Keaney, is the former political director for Unite Here, which represents hotel, restaurant and apparel workers.
Ms. Quinn has repeatedly drawn a distinction between a union negotiating with the city for better pay and benefits, and developers and corporations vying for lucrative land deals or government contracts.
“The situation here is to require that everyone gets treated the same way,” she said yesterday. “A union or a PAC can give one contribution, whatever the maximum is for the office in question. Someone who did business with the City of New York prior to this could have every person in the business give a contribution of the maximum level allowed to that office. So I think this in fact much more levels the playing field.”
Well, it’s a sound bite anyway. Coming to a city hall near you!