Obama vs. Obey is a fascinating fight. It illuminates one of the biggest questions the nonprofit sector should ponder – but rarely does: Is a growing government really an ally of nonprofits? Consider: The President earlier this month threatened to veto a bill crafted by Rep. David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, because Obey’s bill grabs $800 million that were supposed to fund the President’s signature school reform efforts. Those reforms include Obama’s “Race to the Top” program and charter school expansion. In hopes of winning the competitive grants these Obama initiatives will provide, numerous states have been competing to improve their school systems. Obama’s school reform programs are widely lauded by education experts across the political spectrum. Indeed, even observers who usually are harsh critics of the Obama administration have praised these proposals. So, just where does Rep. Obey want to send those hundreds of millions he’s grabbing from programs that would help school kids? Why, into a $10 billion free lunch for the teachers unions of course. Still unsure what to make of this? Let Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger explain: “Race to the Top doesn’t make campaign contributions.” By contrast, the two top teachers unions made $58 million in direct campaign contributions from 1989 to 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And even that woefully undercounts the unions’ real contributions. Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency tells much more of the story in the current issue of Education Next:
The largest political campaign spender in America is not a megacorporation, such as Wal-Mart, Microsoft, or ExxonMobil. It isn’t an industry association, like the American Bankers Association or the National Association of Realtors. It’s not even a labor federation, like the AFL-CIO. If you combine the campaign spending of all those entities it does not match the amount spent by the National Education Association, the public-sector labor union that represents some 2.3 million K–12 public school teachers and nearly a million education support workers (bus drivers, custodians, food service employees), retirees, and college student members. NEA members alone make up more than half of union members working for local governments, by far the most unionized segment of the U.S. economy. [emphasis added]
And with that mention of unionized government workers we are back to our theme: Big government in our day is a co-dependency between elected officials and the largely unionized government workforce that helps keep those officials elected. To be blunt, Rep. Obey knows with certainty that a fat chunk of the $10 billion he’s sending his union friends will be channeled straight back into both “hard money” campaign contributions and even more massive in-kind contributions. As Henninger notes, the NEA gives 92 percent of its contributions to Democrats, while the American Federation of Teachers tops that with 98 percent going to Democrats. Obey says his largess is needed to save teachers' jobs. Isn’t that noble? Not exactly. The invaluable Antonucci runs down the numbers: From 2003 to 2008, student enrollment across the country “increased a cumulative 1.6 percent, while the K-12 teacher workforce increased 4 percent.” Nor did the last school year see any abatement in this bizarre trend of  government hiring more and more teachers for fewer and fewer students. In 2007-2008, our government-run schools lost 45,397 students from the previous year while gaining 7,859 full-time equivalent teachers. And we haven’t even begun to explore the deeper fiscal issues raised, namely, the cost of lavish pensions and health care benefits that these teachers and other unionized government workers are extracting from the public purse. That’s the nub of the Obama/Obey drama, as Henninger points out. The vast sums that pols like Obey send to their campaign contributors are hoovering up the monies that most people in the nonprofit world would like to see go to helping kids in after-school programs, assisting senior citizens, operating parks, and more. California, whose public pension obligations equal a good-sized nation’s GDP, is ground zero for the trend. Henninger quotes Jeff Adachi, a leading San Francisco Democratic office-holder, who warns that the public defender’s office, “children’s programs, after-school programs, education, senior programs, everything that we care about as progressives is going to be lost because it’s being sucked up by the cost of pensions.” Another Democrat, David Crane, who advises the governor, testified to California legislators: “Those who should be most concerned about pension costs are families and businesses concerned about California’s colleges and universities, recipients of the state’s health and human services, users of state parks, citizens interested in environmental protection.” Crane added that California this year snatched $5.5 billion out of budgets for public universities, transit, parks, and more to pay for pensions and health care. These stark pictures should cause many well-meaning folks in the nonprofit sector to reconsider their presumption that government, like them, is in the helping business. We can have lots of useful debates about precisely how our present disastrous course should be altered. But let no one deceive himself that ever-expanding government means a stronger nonprofit sector and more help for underprivileged Americans.