Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Obama and the Teamsters

I missed this back in May when it occurred, but according to CBS News and the New Republic Senator Obama struck a deal to end the federal Independent Review Board created in 1989 to curb Teamsters' corruption:
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that last summer, Illinois Senator Barack Obama told officials in the Teamsters union that he favored ending the Independent Review Board (IRB) that was created in 1989 by the federal government to rid the union of organized crime. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for Obama, confirmed the story, saying that the candidate believed that the IRB had "run its course" because "organized crime influence in the union has drastically declined." The Teamsters subsequently endorsed Obama for president, in late February.

Obama and the Teamsters bristled at suggestions that any deal was made. The Obama campaign also circulated a tape of a speech that Senator Hillary Clinton made last March to the Teamsters saying "at some point the past has to be opened," but Clinton's statement, like those made by Senator John Kerry in 2004, stopped well short of committing her to end oversight of the Teamsters. Based on the statements the newspaper quoted, it is fair to assume that The Wall Street Journal got the details right.

There are two reasons to be concerned about Obama's actions here. The first is procedural. Obama's promise to close down the IRB suggests a Bush-like contempt for the customary relationship between government and the judicial process. The president himself can't shut down the IRB. He can only recommend to his attorney general that he recommend to the U.S. Attorney in New York that it be shut down. But in these kind of touchy matters, presidents usually defer to the judgment of their attorney generals. By coming close to promising a shutdown, Obama was putting politics above judicial procedure - which is just the kind of "Washington" behavior that he likes to criticize his opponents for doing.

The second reason for concern is more substantive. Labor leaders have made plausible arguments for shutting down the IRB, but a Chicago politician should be extremely wary of acceding to them. If there is continuing mob influence in the Teamsters, it is probably centered in the Chicago area. And in the last decade, the Teamsters in Chicago have shown little enthusiasm for rooting out corruption in their ranks. As a veteran Chicago politician surrounded by a veteran Chicago campaign staff, Obama had to have known this - and that makes his warm words to the Teamsters all the more disturbing.
Once again, Obama goes where other Democratic politicians dare not go in explicitly committing himself to ending corruption oversight in exchange for union support. This is Chicago politics, but it's not remotely reformist politics.

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