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Union Power, Political Potholes By: Gary Andres
Washington Times | Thursday, December 18, 2008


Democrats face some political potholes on the road to governing with their expanded majorities in the 111th Congress. The hazards are certain; falling in them is not. Three areas of risk deserve special navigation -- relations with organized labor, executive branch oversight, and fostering bipartisanship. Failure to navigate any of these could produce serious setbacks. All deserve careful management in the months ahead.

Dealing with unions creates major challenges. No special interest group deserves more credit for electing and expanding a Democratic majority in Congress than organized labor. Unions infused Democrats with money, manpower and message support across America. Their resources are both concentrated and large, and they continue to provide electoral and legislative lifeblood.

According to OpenSecrets.org, over 90 percent of the millions of dollars of union money spent in 2008 went to Democrats - no big shift from previous years. Business interests are typically more bipartisan and pragmatic. Many just try to gain access and win favor with the party in power, Democrat or Republican. Corporate and trade association giving shifted following the 2006 election to reflect the new Democratic majority. Labor's approach, on the other hand, is more overtly political. They engage in less “strategic giving.” Labor supports Democrats whether they are the majority or the minority in Congress.

The problem for Democrats is a mismatch between labor's growing political clout and its declining numbers. Unions now represent less than 10 percent of the private sector work force. Yet they dominate the Democrats' legislative agenda in Congress. A long-time Republican Capitol Hill staffer told me that “most major pieces of legislation have something either big - or tucked away so no one notices - that labor wants.” Labor's political power was on display again recently with the auto bailout legislation. Many - including Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who played a key role in the negotiations - believe the United Auto Workers' opposition to forced union concessions led to the demise of legislation in the Senate.

Are Democrats completely controlled by big labor? Not necessarily. But the party would do well to demonstrate a little more separation from the union label. Simply transacting a special interest group's agenda when it comes to trade, the future of the auto industry, or other legislative priorities fosters cynicism among voters. And if this perception grows, it could cause a severe electoral backlash.

Legislative oversight also deserves serious attention. Most Americans support Congress as a check on executive branch excess. But when the same party controls both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, tough and independent oversight is challenging. Political parties often look the other way when it comes to investigating their own people. It's human nature, but it's also politically risky. Congressional Republicans faced a similar challenge after George W. Bush took office in 2001 while the GOP controlled Congress. Americans want accountability, transparency and competency in government. The Democratic Congress should ensure the Obama administration meets those requirements.

Finally, Democrats should try to break the cycle of polarization and partisanship when it comes to relations with Republicans. Barack Obama's election gives them both means and motivation to do so.
Americans want Congress to solve problems. But style matters. As House Republican Leader John Boehner likes to say, “How you do what you do is just as important as what you do.” There is no reason why Democratic leaders and committee chairs can't institutionalize meetings and outreach with their colleagues in the minority to seek more opportunities to work together and change the tone in Washington.

True, deep philosophical disagreements exist on some issues. But that doesn't mean lawmakers can't look for areas to lower the decibel level and find new areas of common ground. This might be a corollary of the Woody Allen Rule (80 percent of success in life is just showing up). Just trying a little more civility and inclusiveness might yield some surprising results.

Americans believe Washington is dominated by special interests, wastes money and is too polarized. Democrats in Congress risk fulfilling the country's worst fears - caving in to unions, condoning incompetent government and pursuing a purely partisan agenda. Due to unique institutional conditions, including the Party's long-standing relations with labor, unified Party control, and generations of corrosive partisan polarization, these public worries could deepen in the next Congress. These potholes are avoidable. But it will take awareness, aptitude and more than a little savvy to steer clear.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.


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