Problem Politics

Let's stipulate at the outset that if the Republican Congress had done a decent job addressing the nation's problems over the past two years, the Foley scandal and cover-up wouldn't now be plunging the Republicans into political perdition. Instead, the scandal has served chiefly to crystallize in the public's mind much that it has come to loathe about both the Congress and the Bush administration -- above all, their unwavering focus on the politics of a problem rather than the problem itself.

It's not just that congressional Republicans have neglected to do anything about the conduct of the war in Iraq, or diminishing medical and retirement benefits, or the 12 million undocumented immigrants living and working here. It's also that they've fabricated crises if the politics seemed propitious. (Remember Terry Schiavo?) Or they've concocted public problems in order to go after groups that pose political problems for them. So they've contended that trial lawyers, who are a major funding source for Democrats, are a major reason for the high cost of medicine (which they're not) and sought to reduce jury awards by legislative fiat. Similarly, they periodically attack unions, the linchpin of the Democratic coalition, by pointing up the perils they pose -- some of them so dire they don't, in fact, really exist.

Consider, for instance, a quiet subcommittee hearing conducted late last month to address the looming crisis of “mixed unions” -- a term that refers not to a union's racial composition but to the membership both of private security guards and of other workers within the same larger union. If that somehow fails to set off your alarm bells, you're obviously not a Republican member of Congress.

On September 28th, Texas Republican Sam Johnson (who regularly introduces legislation to repeal the 16th Amendment, which established the income tax) convened his subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations to examine the threat to civilization posed by the organizing campaign that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was conducting among the employees of Wackenhut, the venerable security guard company. SEIU also happens to be among the most politically active unions, usually on the Democratic side, in the land.

“In the post 9/11 world,” Johnson intoned, "we cannot risk the potential for a lapse in security that could have disastrous consequences.” The hearing that followed was plainly designed to demonstrate how having security guards in a union that also has janitors and nurses as members (as SEIU does) would pose such a risk. In fact, it demonstrated quite the opposite.

Under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, guards are indeed supposed to be in unions of their own -- a provision written to ensure that they did not side with other workers during the many strikes that characterized labor relations in the very different world of the 1940s. The act makes an exception, though, if the employer consents to a mixed union, a decision that SEIU has been pressuring Wackenhut to make. Over the past several decades, the union has organized thousands of security guards around the country; indeed, the security guards at work at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 -- the very first workers on the scene to coordinate the evacuation of the towers -- were SEIU members.

But the object of the hearing was to allow retired General David Foley, president of Wackenhut Services, to lay out the peril posed by SEIU. “There's a possibility,” he testified, “the strategic federal facilities, including DOD, DOE, NASA and other highly sensitive complexes could have their security compromised.”

Serious stuff. But when New Jersey Congressman Rob Andrews, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, asked Foley how things were proceeding at Fort Bragg, where the Wackenhut security guards who protect the Delta Force headquarters belong to one of those dread mixed unions, Foley responded, “Sir, that contract has run wonderfully.” Massachusetts Democrat John Tierney brought up the fact that Wackenhut's parent company, Group 4 Securicor, has contracts with mixed unions in a range of countries, including Britain (where they guard intelligence facilities) and Israel, and wondered whether Wackenhut's position was that American workers are uniquely disloyal. (Foley said no.)

Finally, when Michigan Democrat Dale Kildee pointed out to Foley that “you really cannot cite any example where there's been any lessening of security or feeling of obligation of security on behalf of the members of these mixed unions,” Foley agreed. “No, sir, I can't,” he replied.

“So are we then looking for a solution for a problem that does not exist?” Kildee wondered. Kildee also happens to be the one Democrat on the committee that oversees the congressional page program -- the guy the Republicans somehow neglected to inform about a very real problem crying out for Congress' attention.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.

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