How NEA Came to Love Citizens United

September 8, 2016

How NEA Came to Love Citizens United. The outsized influence of the rich on American elections and politics dates to the early days of the republic. More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 sharply elevated these fears by lifting many restrictions on political spending by corporations and nonprofit organizations.

Much of this new spending is now filtered through Super PACs — coalitions that can raise unlimited amounts to campaign for or against candidates but can’t directly contribute to, or coordinate with, the candidates or political parties.

Almost $1 billion has been donated to Super PACs so far in the 2016 election cycle. USA Today recently identified the 156 individuals and organizations who have given $1 million or more. The list is populated by those you would expect to see: hedge fund managers, financiers, and CEOs — donors who were just as likely to support Democrats as Republicans, according to the report.

The top five are all hedge-fund billionaires, but the number six “mega-donor” might come as a surprise: it’s the National Education Association — the largest teachers’ union — with $14.2 million in contributions to Super PACs, primarily its own, the NEA Advocacy Fund.

The union has denounced the influence of big money for years without mentioning that it is one of the nation’s largest political spenders. It stands alongside Wall Street profiteers in propping up the post-Citizens United funding system.

When asked, the union points to the difference between a single individual donating $14 million and a democratic organization of three million teachers donating $14 million.

There is a difference, but not as much as you might think.

Direct contributions to candidates from unions must be voluntarily contributed by willing members, but independent political expenditures — the $14 million-plus to Super PACs — come out of NEA’s general fund, a stockpile of members’ dues that the union can spend without consulting the members.

The fund is an unclearly-arrived-at sum inside the union’s budget, approved on a voice vote by however many of the NEA’s 6,800 Representative Assembly delegates who are still around late on the last night of a four-day convention that meets once a year.

Ultimately, nine members of the union’s executive committee — elected by delegates to handle day-to-day affairs — decide how much of the fund goes to the Super PAC and how it is spent.

That’s the formal decision-making process: nine people allocating dues collected from three million.

It stands to reason that junior members of the executive committee have less influence over these large contributions than does the NEA president, who sits on the committee, or even the NEA executive director, who does not.

Typically, other spenders at the NEA’s level seek to influence several public policy sectors, most of which are contested by opposing special interest groups. The power of the teachers’ union is concentrated in a single field and isn’t countered by any comparable opposing interests, let alone one with the ability to influence virtually every area of the country.

If you follow the rules, of course, it’s perfectly legal to try to influence elections and laws using money.

It’s also perfectly defensible to worry that a handful of wealthy individuals exercise too much influence over American campaign politics through massive spending.

High-ranking teacher union officers are part of that group.

Recent Intercepts. EIA’s daily blog, Intercepts, covered these topics September 1-7:

* Something for Teachers’ Unions to Ponder Over Labor Day Weekend. If charters are subject to the National Labor Relations Act, then all union affiliates with charter school members must be subject to the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act.

* Record Holders. The California Teachers Association is worried about big-spending special interests influencing education policy. Really.

* The Limits of Poll Questions About Unions. Public attitudes about unions might be influenced by what kind of union we ask about.

* NYSUT Heads Off Threatened Staff Strike. Can’t have picket lines in front of union headquarters in an election year.

* Labor Resurgence Just a Little Overdue. Hope springs eternal… literally.

Quote of the Week. “In the 2012 election alone, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to influence our elections by ‘Super PACs’ and 501(c)4 entities who, after Citizens United, can take corporate money in unlimited amounts. Moreover, this decision left Congress and the states helpless to prevent this distortion of our democracy.” – Mary Kusler, the National Education Association’s director of government relations, in an April 11, 2013 letter to the U.S. House of Representatives.