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To win game, GOP playing hardball with unions

Is a political adversary giving you fits? Well, just pass a law against it. See? Sometimes there are simple answers to complex problems.

After years of little more than scuttling along the sidelines, the AFL-CIO jumped back into the political game $35 million worth in the 1996 presidential and congressional elections, firing off a barrage of TV commercials that were officially, ahem, educational but whose lesson was "Democrats good, Republicans bad."Labor could claim only so-so results, but as you might imagine, the campaign nonetheless failed to amuse Republicans, who have no sense of humor about such matters.

Now the GOP and its cohorts are pushing legislation in Congress and, so far, in 15 states that would require unions to get written permission from each member before using any part of his or her dues for politics. And the sponsors aren't kidding around. One bill in Georgia would put offending unions in court receivership.

In the time-honored Washington tradition of lying by euphemism, the bills sail under such false colors as the "Paycheck Protection Act," the giddy misnomer of the federal legislation. The "Suppress the Opposition Act" would be more like it.

Labor contributions to candidates are modest and are channeled through political action committees; members have to volunteer the money. And union members have had a mechanism since a 1988 Supreme Court ruling to keep their dues from being used for broader political ends - lobbying, for instance, and issue-oriented campaigns like those of '96. Very few take the out.

The real point of forcing unions to canvass their members for personal permission is to make the process so difficult and costly it will take labor out the game and leave the field to the legislation's authors - a gang of right-wing organizations and Republican legislators professing sudden concern for worker's incomes. (Pretty much the same Republicans, by the way, who always vote against raising the minimum wage .)

This naked attempt to use the law for partisan ends might be supportable if it were redressing a gross imbalance, but in fact it would worsen an imbalance that already is gross.

The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics reports that corporations out-spend unions 11-1 in politics. Nor are Republicans in any position to complain of a financial disadvantage. They routinely spend far more than Democrats.

If a goose-and-gander fairness were the goal, the proposed legislation would require all political players to get written approval to use members' dues for politics - the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Rifle Association and all the other big boys in the GOP clubhouse. Corporations would have to get specific permission from individual shareholders before playing politics with their equity.

In a bit of verbal overkill typical of this nonsense, Thomas Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has been quoted as blasting "union-led programs to hijack the American political system . . ."

It's a declaration that rings with all the moral authority of a safe cracker denouncing a pickpocket.