AFL-CIO leader gives blessing to disclosure order on donations

The AFL-CIO is warming up to campaign finance reform in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that eased restrictions on election-year spending.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke forcefully Friday at the National Press Club in favor of strengthening campaign finance laws. 

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In a brief interview after the Press Club speech, the labor leader told The Hill that President Obama’s draft executive order to have government contractors disclose their political contributions is “a good idea.”

“I do think that’s a good idea. I don’t think that’s the end of it, but I think that’s a good idea,” Trumka said.

Asked if he thought the president should sign the draft order, the head of the nation’s largest labor federation said, “Yes.”

The proposal has earned the backing of several public interest groups but has been slammed by Republican lawmakers and lobbying heavyweights such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They say the order would politicize the contracting process. 

Trumka’s comments represent a shift in tone from around this time in 2010, when the AFL-CIO came out against the Disclose Act — legislation that would have forced outside groups to disclose their donors to the public. 

Democrats crafted the Disclose Act in response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which eased restrictions on corporate campaign spending. Campaign watchdogs say the draft executive order would have an impact similar to the Disclose Act if the president signed it.

Since the Supreme Court decision, labor officials have complained they can’t keep up with the campaign spending of corporations. On Friday, Trumka took aim at the Citizens United ruling and called for an “overhaul.”

“The system is broken. The Supreme Court helped break it even more with Citizens United. The system needs to be changed so average, ordinary Americans can have a stronger voice, as ExxonMobil does in the Congress,” Trumka said. “It needs to be changed. The campaign finance laws need to be changed, so I ,for one, would be for an overhaul. I would start at the Supreme Court probably because they believe money equals free speech. That’s what their decision said.”

The January 2010 Supreme Court decision allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds on political activities, including expressly advocating for or against the election of a candidate.

Campaign finance watchdogs note that labor has a new rival in election spending since the high court’s ruling. Conservative-leaning groups that didn’t disclose their donors brought in a huge influx of money last election cycle, spending close to $120 million on campaign ads while similar liberal-leaning groups spent more than $16 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“I think they are now starting to wake up and smell the coffee. That is why you are seeing the shifting ground,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.

Other unions have already lent their support to campaign finance reform efforts.

Holman helped coordinate a letter sent to Obama earlier this month in support of the draft order. Among the groups signing the letter was the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of labor’s most prominent political players.

“SEIU was quick to say ‘Yes, we’re on board,’ ” Holman said. “There was a debate going in the rest of organized labor because of most of them opposed the Disclose Act. I had to get the letter out quick, so I couldn’t wait much longer.”

A SEIU official said the union signed onto the letter because the draft order is similar to the Disclose Act.

“Transparency is an essential safeguard to our political process. We cannot allow another election to pass where billionaires and corporate special interests marginalize the voice of middle class voters. This executive order seeks to do what the Disclose Act and other campaign finance measures, introduced and passed by both Republicans and Democrats over the past many decades, have sought to do — shed more light, not less, on our electoral process,” said Brandon Davis, SEIU’s political director, in a statement.

Calling the Disclose Act “a good start” when it was first introduced, SEIU never opposed the bill last year. Other unions were wary of the measure because of restrictions it could place on labor organizers as they campaigned for their chosen candidates.

Those concerns led the AFL-CIO to come out against the legislation. In a July 2010 letter to senators, Bill Samuel, AFL-CIO’s government affairs director, said the Senate version of the bill would impose “extraordinary new costly and impractical record-keeping and reporting obligations on thousands of labor (and other non-profit) organizations with regard to routine inter-affiliate payments that bear little or no connection with public communications about federal elections.”

Samuel said the bill didn’t merit the AFL-CIO’s support.

The AFL-CIO didn’t oppose the House version of the bill since it didn’t have the Senate-added provision that required affiliate unions to disclose their money transfers within their respective labor federations. The legislation ended up stalling in the Senate after passing in the House.

“The AFL-CIO, from a legal standpoint, has been fighting against campaign finance laws for years,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.

For example, the labor federation filed an amicus brief in support of Citizens United when its case came to the Supreme Court. But on the day the decision was announced, Trumka released a statement disagreeing with the ruling, saying it “titled the playing field” towards corporations since it treated corporate and union political spending the same.

Wertheimer said the pro-reform remarks from Trumka show the labor federation is recognizing how the political world has changed since the Supreme Court ruling.

“AFL-CIO leadership is recognizing their vulnerability in the post-Citizens United world,” Wertheimer said. “Everyone who participates in elections stands to be overwhelmed by corporations and the third-party groups that are funded by corporations.”