Mar 8, 2018

The Lobbying That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Public-sector unions exert a baleful influence on the legislative process.

As of February 16th, the Senate hadn’t agreed on the immigration legislation that is necessary to cement protection for immigrants brought to America illegally while children.  As I was driving to work, I heard Senator Coons say that there is widespread bipartisan agreement, and indeed overwhelming support in the population as a whole, that these people should be protected.  Regardless of people’s views about illegal immigration, the consensus seems to be that if your parents dragged you here when you were a toddler, and you’ve consequently grown up here and have no knowledge of any country beside the United States, you aren’t legally blameworthy, and that it would be cruel to deport you.   So Senator Coons was expressing frustration that they couldn’t find a way to let them stay. 

My initial reaction was: so, let them stay.  If there’s wide agreement in the legislature and among the population that this is the right thing to do, then do it.  I couldn’t see what the problem was.  But silly me: the problem was politics, which, as usual, was interfering with justice.  As the senator explained to the interviewer, it wasn’t just about the DACA program – any legislation on that was linked to a 25-billion-dollar funding increase to border security.  When I realized that lobbying from the Border Patrol union and the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Council was being deployed to secure funds to hire more members for their unions, I understood perfectly. 

The basic concept of unions works like this: there are a lot of us working in this factory, where the boss - the factory owner - pays us poorly and/or provides unsafe working conditions.  If any one of us asked for higher pay or better conditions, we’d be fired.  But if we all got together to make those demands, he couldn’t fire all of us, and so we’d be in a much better position to bargain for what we want.  He will have to settle for slightly lower profits because the alternative is work stoppage, which ends up being more costly.

The basic logic of that scenario makes some sense, but a moment’s reflection should make it clear that unions of government employees aren’t in that situation at all. There is no profit-making owner to bargain with.  All increases in pay or benefits or working conditions are funded by taxpayers.  And the primary bargaining chip isn’t “we’ll stop working, which means you’ll stop making money,” it’s “we’ll support you politically if you give us what we want, and we’ll support your opponent if you do not.”  In some cases, the work stoppage is legally prohibited, ensuring that political support is the carrot and stick.  But in those cases where striking is not prohibited, for example in states where public school teachers aren’t barred from striking, the labor action targets innocent third parties who aren’t in charge of funding to begin with.  (The rationale there is indirect lobbying: if we make parents of school children suffer, maybe they’ll demand that their legislators accede to our demands, which is the same rationale the PLO used to use.) 

So the unions in these situations are essentially lobbyists.  This is why Senator Coons can’t get his favored legislation through, despite widespread agreement.  Lobbying has resulted in an intertwining of issues, the protection for DACA children and the 25 billion for border security.  Interestingly, Republican lawmakers who indicate strong resentment to this kind of union-centric lobbying when it comes from labor unions never seem to remember why it’s wrong when it comes from law-enforcement or paramilitary unions, while Democratic lawmakers who object to it now seem not to remember that this is how they traditionally do business.  (Ironically, many public-sector employee unions lobby for measures that amount to regressive transfers of wealth from the less-well-off to the more-well-off.  Full disclosure: I am in one of these unions – as required by law.  Thankfully, my union doesn’t deport people.  While reasonable people can disagree about whether state employees should engage in collective bargaining for higher salaries, surely there should be a higher bar for justifying collective bargaining to empower detention, physical force, asset seizure, etc.) 

If we see public-sector employee unions as lobbying groups, then it’s easy to see why the Senate is stuck with the current situation.  While this particular issue may cleave along partisan lines, Democratic lawmakers cannot take a principled stance against public-sector employee unions generally, since many such unions skew Democratic.  They certainly cannot say “these unions owe their existence to a false analogy to labor unions and we should legislate them away.”  And they can’t really even say “this particular union is transparently engaged in rent-seeking and only gets traction from its ability to tap into people’s fears and prejudices.” So they will be obliged to bargain with them, meaning in this context agreeing to some level of increased funding for “border security,” if they hope to be able to protect DACA children.  Senator Coons sounded genuinely frustrated on the radio, but I’ve seen this movie before, many times.  The way it usually ends is, they agree on some compromise legislation, congratulate themselves for having done so, and blame the other side later for any problems.

I agree that it would be cruel to deport people who did not choose to break any laws and who have known no other home but the United States.  It’s terrible that this is being held hostage to special-interest lobbying.  It would be nice to see legislators debate the merits of various ideas about law enforcement and paramilitary security policy in a way that requires them to justify their thinking to their constituents.  That’s exactly the sort of debate the framers had in mind.  But a debate like that cannot be intellectually honest if it’s influenced by lobbyists.  The incentives created by the lobbying alter the calculations of the legislators.  Indeed, one suspects that the legislators prefer it this way: when they are on the side of the public-sector employee unions, they are rewarded, but when they are opposed, they have cover for their ineffectiveness.  Every politician complains about “special interest groups” and their baleful influence when it explains opposition to their proposals.  But they seem to rely on this activity as well – they just don’t call it that.