James Madison believed that constitutional government was a matter of balance. As he put it: "You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."
Today, few people worry about government's ability to control the governed. But the politicization of government workers, especially at the state and local level, has made it increasingly difficult for the government to control itself.
From the 1830s to the 1950s, the central problem was the patronage system ruled by machine bosses and ward heelers. "To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy," New York Senator William Marcy said in 1832 -- the spoils in this case being government jobs. By prioritizing political connections over merit, the patronage system weakened the quality of government services, as many government workers spent more time on party politics than their nominal jobs.
In response, reformers from the 1880s through the 1950s enacted civil service laws. Their aim was to ensure that public servants were hired, promoted and fired based on talent. By providing new job protections, reformers sought to render public bureaucracies neutral, nonpartisan and professional.
But almost as soon as civil service laws took hold, giving public employees a long-term stake in their jobs, workers began to be recruited into the labor movement. Prior to the 1950s, few government workers were union members. By 1980, 36 percent were unionized -- a figure that has remained remarkably stable ever since.
Over the last 30 years, public sector unions became the vehicle for the re-politicization of the government work force. Of course, the vast majority of government employees no longer engage directly in party affairs -- the unions do it for them.
With new state laws mandating collective bargaining, agency shop provisions requiring even non-union employees to pay into union coffers, and paycheck withholding of dues, which guarantees stable revenues, public sector unions have fast became the heart and soul of the labor movement. These key allies of the Democratic Party are now among the most powerful interest groups in the country.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that American workers cannot be forced to join unions, but that they can be required to pay "agency fees" to unions in exchange for representation. Today, half of the states allow mandatory contributions to unions, which are often close in dollar amounts to union dues, and thus provide a powerful incentive for workers to join unions.
In jurisdictions with agency shops, over 90 percent of public school teachers belong to unions; in jurisdictions without them, the percentage falls about 30 points. The collection of agency fees and union dues by government swells public employee union ranks and bank accounts. This has significant political consequences.
Public employee unions spend about 20 percent of their dues revenue on politics. That is a huge figure in dollar terms. Consider all of California's public sector unions combined: They have about 1 million workers. The estimated annual average dues per worker is $500, which translates into a $120 million fund for political spending. In 2010, public sector unions in California spent nearly $100 million (that can be clearly traced) on donations to candidates and parties, independent expenditures and ballot measures.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, six public employee unions were among the top 15 spenders on federal elections from 1989-2012. Almost all of their money went to Democrats. And remember, these are unions that represent primarily state and local government employees.
Ultimately, agency shop and dues check-off laws are the legal mechanisms placing public workers' union representatives among the biggest spenders on politics in many parts of the country.
Daniel DiSalvo, an assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York-CUNY, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributor to PublicSectorInc.org, and author of Engines of Change: Party Factions in American Politics (Oxford).