Video: Who Gives More, Business or Labor?

With the midterm elections a week out, the headlines are all about money in politics. But the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal can't agree on who deserves more scrutiny—business or labor.

Lucky for Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation owns FOX Broadcasting as well as the Wall Street Journal, he has more than one outlet for his point of view.

Murdoch's top-rated business anchor Neil Cavuto led off his October 22 broadcast by taking the Times to task for largely ignoring union political contributions in its front-page story on the money poured into this year's election.

After Steven Forbes weighed in, channeling the essence of our insane politics of the moment by comparing Barack Obama to V.I. Lenin in the Soviet Union circa 1918, I got 12 minutes with Cavuto to debate the subject.

The videos are below, along with a few more thoughts about the very real problem of money and politics.


My Debate with Neil Cavuto on Money in Politics Part I


My Debate with Neil Cavuto on Money in Politics Part II

WHO GIVES MORE? A CLOSER LOOK

In an October 22 front-page story, the Times spent nearly 1,800 words describing the growing political influence of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—and by extension the Chamber's ever-expanding list of heavy-hitting corporate donors. As the Times detailed, the Chamber aggressively guards details of its corporate patronage, refusing to disclose how much various Fortune 500 firms give, or what the money is for.

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Chamber officials insist, however, that there is no quid pro quo. That $2 million that Prudential Financial Services gave the Chamber last year just as the debate over financial reform was heating up in Congress? Not connected at all to the Chamber's aggressive push against financial regulation.

Accompanying the story in the Times was a graphic showing the biggest non-party spenders. Most of them are Republican-leaning, like fundraising powerhouse American Crossroads, which Republican strategist and Bush adviser Karl Rove helped establish.

Over at the Wall Street Journal, the storyline was a little different, and the front page headline more or less said it all: "Public-Employees Union Now Leads All Groups in Independent Election Outlays." The story spends most of its 1,300 words rehashing the world of hurt that public budgets are in, and why AFSCME, the 1.6 million-member public employees union, is spending $87 million in the 2010 election.

Along with the wacky chest-thumping of AFSCME's political director Larry Scanlon, the story details how AFSCME, like most other unions, has backtracked on its pledge to withhold funds from Democrats who voted against health care reform, refused to support the Employee Free Choice Act, or generally were hostile to labor's political agenda.

AFSCME calls its new approach to politics the "218 Strategy" (the number of seats the Democrats need to hold to keep the House of Representatives). But Politico had a more honest take on what unions are doing in the midterm election: "Labor Holds its Nose, Backs Former Foes."

Although Cavuto wants to deny it, data on who's giving money to politics this season are readily available from the Center on Responsive Politics and its invaluable website opensecrets.org. Cavuto is right that unions as organizations give a ton. But they were outspent 27 to 1 in the last election by business. Even if you count all the money unions spent on glossy newsletters, staff time, phonebanks, and GOTV logistics, they were still down 10 to 1 vis-a-vis business.

Thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United, that gap is only going to grow. The new ruling allows corporations and unions to spend money directly out of their treasuries on political advertising, so long as the ads are not coordinated with any campaign. Remember the Swift Boat ads that dogged John Kerry in the '04 presidential race? Now imagine almost every commercial on TV during election season looking like that. It's not as far-fetched as it seems.

So-called "outside spending" has exploded since 2004, and this new Supreme Court ruling will send it into the stratosphere. Some unions have embraced the new-found freedom (see John Nichols's Nation piece on the Citizens United decision and labor as well as his subsequent exchange with the AFL-CIO's associate general counsel). But while the AFL's lawyers may want to discuss the finer points of a nuanced legal position, union leaders need an old-fashioned arithmetic lesson. Corporations, financiers, and executives have more dough, and always will. Labor can't spend its way out of that predicament, which means getting money out of politics needs to be at the top of the union movement's agenda.

UPDATE: So today The Hill, a Washington news paper dedicated to inside-the-beltway political intrigue, zeroed in on the fact that, with control of Congress up for grabs, unions have backed off their hard line against Democrats hostile to labor's legislative agenda. The article left me feeling like I'm in a twilight zone episode because the person who asks the most relevant question is the right-wing guy from the "Workplace Fairness Institute" one of the many anti-union groups out there pushing against most things that would actually make workplaces fairer or workers better off. He summed up the consequences of labor's strategy as follows:

“What you are seeing is the unions going for incumbent protection instead of sticking to their core issues. That is probably going to come back and haunt them in the future,” said Glenn Spencer, executive director of the Workforce Freedom Initiative at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “When they head up to the Hill to negotiate these issues, it’s been demonstrated that you can buck the unions and still get their financial support.”

Mark Brenner is the former director of Labor Notes.