“We now have a corrupt campaign finance system which is undermining American democracy,” Bernie SandersBernie SandersFranken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Pelosi says House members would not vote on spending bill top line higher than Senate's Groups push lawmakers to use defense bill to end support for Saudis in Yemen civil war MORE shouted at a recent campaign stop.
It’s become a common refrain in Sanders’ stump speeches: America’s campaign finance system is rigged in favor of the “1 percent” and Republicans are to blame because many receive donations from the ominous Koch brothers. One of the biggest problems is “dark money,” political expenditures from undisclosed sources.
If that’s the case, then union bosses better watch out. Big Labor is among the most prolific political spenders in U.S. politics: From 2012 to 2014, America’s largest unions sent nearly $420 million to the Democratic Party and closely aligned special interest groups. The Democratic Governors Association raked in almost $8 million during that time, while Catalist—a premier Democratic data firm—made off with more than $5 million. (And that $420 million number doesn’t even include millions of dollars in candidate contributions from PAC money.)
Unions sent member dues money to an array of “dark money” liberal advocacy groups including the 501(c)(4) arms of the Center for American Progress, National Employment Law Project, and Partnership for Working Families—which aren’t required to report who funds them. George Soros’ Democracy Alliance—a secretive network of liberal donors—received more than $2 million during those years. And who are these donors? It’s not clear: According to The Washington Post, the group “does not disclose its members.”
Yet Clinton and Sanders have not only kept mum on union rainmaking; they’ve profited from it.
The Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative racked up about $1.3 million in donations from 2012 to 2014 alone. This election cycle, Big Labor is pouring millions of dollars into Clinton-aligned super PACs and advocacy vehicles—from Priorities Action USA to American Bridge 21st Century and Correct the Record. And the Democratic frontrunner has received a host of prominent union endorsements, from the American Federation of Teachers to the Service Employees International Union—who are canvassing the country with “Ready for Hillary” events.
Bernie Sanders is no stranger to union generosity himself. The National Nurses United (NNU)—which endorsed Sanders last year—has raised more than $4.3 million for its pro-Sanders super PAC and spent nearly $3 million on advertisements and flyers supporting the Vermont senator. NNU even buses members to Sanders’ campaign rallies. (Check out the swanky bus here.)
Yet his campaign website still reads: “The situation has become so absurd that super PACs, which theoretically operate independently of the actual candidates, have more money and more influence over campaigns than the candidates themselves.”
It confirms former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean’s recent admission, “Labor unions are super-PACs Democrats like so we don’t go after labor unions.”
Clinton and Sanders should face the facts: If ours is truly a “corrupt campaign finance system,” then Big Labor propagates that system and labor reform is in order. The Employee Rights Act (ERA), for instance, would reign in union bosses’ massive political budget. It would require labor organizers to obtain opt-in permission from the rank-and-file—40 percent of whom vote Republican—before spending member dues on political activities and lobbying. This subjects union political spending to more democratic scrutiny.
It’s no wonder the ERA is co-sponsored by more than 140 members of Congress and supported by 80 percent of Americans, including union households.
The Democrats should join them—if they are the campaign finance reformers they claim to be.
Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.