Campaign-finance reform is not President Bush's top priority. But it is John McCain's. The Arizona senator gave Mr. Bush such tough competition during last year's primaries - and retains so much clout among Republicans - that he's forced the Senate to take up his reform bill in March.
But in a meeting with Senator McCain last week, Bush made it clear he wants "paycheck protection" to be a part of any reform bill. That's shorthand for prohibiting unions from using dues for political purposes without each union member's consent.
A 1988 Supreme Court decision established the right of union members not to have their dues used for political causes they object to. When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, he rescinded Labor Department rules intended to implement that ruling.
McCain would lose pro-labor Democratic votes for his bill if it includes paycheck protection. So he has countered to the president that maybe the bill should also ban corporations from making political contributions without the consent of shareholders.
There might be some parallels between unions and corporations in that both are using other people's money for their political purposes. But dissimilarities abound.
For starters, it's clear how much money is involved when a union member wants his or her dues withheld from political contributions. It's a lot less clear what a shareholder might want to withhold - a percentage of assets, of profits, the amount originally invested? And, of course, a union member needing a job has a lot less personal choice than an investor in where his or her money can go.
Then there's the fact that a McCain-style ban on soft-money contributions would end the flow of money from unions (and corporations) into party coffers anyway. (Existing law already prohibits union or corporate donations directly to federal candidates.)
Paycheck protection is needed, but should be part of a labor bill and not used to thwart campaign reform.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society