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Campaign-Finance Contentions

A friend writes in to take issue with Kelley Vlahos’s item on Romney’s view of political expenditures by teachers unions. While, as Kelley says, other sectors of the economy may make larger contributions to the Democratic Party (and politics in general) than Big Ed does, our correspondent notes a significant difference: concerning, for example, Goldman Sachs’s $6.3 million of giving so far this season, “That isn’t money from Goldman Sachs, it is money from employees of Goldman Sachs. Money from AFT and NEA is actually from those orgs, and does not include the sums donated by teachers, faculty, etc.”

According to OpenSecrets.org, the “education” sector — which doesn’t include the teachers unions themselves; they’re categorized as “labor” — has given about $47 million to Democratic candidates and party organs this season. That figure dwarfs the roughly $7 million and $4 million contributed by the NEA and AFT: even in education, individual giving is much larger than institutional giving. The NEA was the largest single donor overall in politics during the 2008 cycle, however, which means there are grounds for Romney to say, as he did in an interview with the Washington Post, “the largest contributors to the Democratic Party are the teachers unions.”

The Post, evidently considering contributions by sector rather than as given by organizations, claimed Romney was wrong, and Romney’s campaign conceded the point. According to the paper, “A Romney spokeswoman clarified that the candidate was referring to the fact that the vast majority of donations made by the National Education Association benefit Democrats.” They certainly do, but the candidate may actually have been correct that the teachers unions are the largest organizational donors to the Democratic Party, if that’s what he meant.

The campaign may know something I don’t know that caused them to retract the candidate’s claim; I would say it’s defensible. The bigger picture of institutional power, however, is distorted if one thinks that giving by the teachers unions is entirely different from the bundling that takes place in other sectors: I’ve certainly heard stories from people in the FIRE sector of how their bosses donate through them. One of the corrupting things about our campaign-finance laws is how they create a black economy. Or a gray economy, in this case, since nobody can be too surprised about how bundled contributions work. Corporate-sector individual giving is not always more voluntary than the contributions extracted by unions from their members’ mandatory dues.

The muddiness of campaign finance, however restrictive or liberal the laws may be, is probably an ineradicable byproduct of democracy itself. Part of the problem is on the supply side: government power at all levels is so great that both rent-seekers and honest actors must get into the elections game to stay alive. But even a reduced level of government power wouldn’t solve the problem once and for all, since the mere possibility of expanding power and using it to shore up one’s own interests will always be a temptation. That just means that these matters will always be contentious and fraught. For my part, I prefer transparent markets to black or gray ones, even when I dislike what’s for sale.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, Modern Age, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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