The Corner

Putting Mitch Daniels and the Right-to-Work Fracas in Context

Many conservatives are displeased that Mitch Daniels has not supported his legislature’s attempt to pass right-to-work legislation. Given the passions engendered by the Wisconsin situation, it’s understandable that many conservatives are upset with what they see as an unnecessary punt on an important issue. There is, however, a fair amount of Indiana-specific context that they should consider.

First, as Josh Barro notes, there are important differences between public-sector unions (the topic in Wisconsin) and private-sector unions (the topic in Indiana). Given the problems posed by the Wagner Act, right-to-work laws do have their merits, as Daniels himself has acknowledged. But private-sector unions represent only 7 percent of the private-sector workforce. Public-sector unions are a far more serious problem, given the conflicts of interest they have with the taxpaying public.

Second, as Katrina Trinko points out, Mitch Daniels decertified all public unions, entirely rescinding their collective-bargaining rights, on his first day in office in 2005. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, as a reminder, is seeking to limit collective-bargaining rights for most public-sector employees, with notable exceptions for public-safety workers: a reasonable, but much more modest, reform. In other words, Mitch Daniels has already done more on the issue of public-sector unions than Scott Walker is even attempting.

Third, the Democratic minority in the Indiana legislature wields considerable power that Daniels has no choice but to deal with. In the Indiana House of Representatives, Republicans have 60 seats and Democrats 40. However, quorum in the Indiana House is 67. By contrast, in the Wisconsin Senate, a quorum of 20 senators is required to pass fiscal legislation, but only 17 are required to pass non-fiscal legislation; Republicans control 19 seats there. Hence, in Wisconsin, Republicans have the ability to pass a wide range of legislation while Democrats are absent. Not so in Indiana.

Fourth, as much as Republicans may not like it, quorum requirements are effectively quite similar to U.S. Senate filibusters, and unless those quorum requirements are modified, the Indiana minority can block all legislation. Indiana’s legislative calendar is only four months long, meaning that other pressing reforms that Daniels campaigned on will wither. These include education reform, which, it is worth mentioning, is fundamentally about challenging the interests and security of teachers’ unions. The moral case against absentee legislators is compelling — but that moral case may not be enough to get things done this year in Indiana.

Fifth, it’s worth reviewing Indiana’s recent history, for those who have the impression that Daniels is a coward. Back in 2005, Indiana House Democrats used the same tactic, leaving the capitol and boycotting votes on dozens of pending bills just before a critical deadline. At that time, Daniels said that “Indiana’s drive for growth and reform was car-bombed yesterday by the Indiana House minority. … If you want to know why Indiana’s economy fell behind, why state government is broke, broken, and awash in scandal, just look at [Democratic minority leader Pat] Bauer.” He said Democrats didn’t have “the courage or conscience to stay at work” and that he was “embarrassed for them.”

In 2011, Daniels’s rhetoric has been more conciliatory, likely because he knows from his experience in 2005 that he needs seven Democrats in the House to get anything done. Jim Geraghty asks, “If the Indiana House Democrats get what they want through this tactic, what’s to prevent them from using it again and again every time they think they’ll lose on a big issue?” The answer is, they already have, and Republicans can’t do much about it. Indiana House speaker Brian Bosma admitted as much to Katrina Trinko. What Daniels seems to be hoping is that Democrats won’t walk out for an issue like education reform, which has broader public support, because he campaigned on it.

Conservatives who criticize Daniels for his stance on the right-to-work legislation remind me a bit of liberals who called Obama a coward for abandoning the public option in 2010. Obama said often that single-payer health care was his preferred approach, but that he simply didn’t have the votes for it in the Senate. Daniels is, unfortunately, in a similar position in Indiana.

Daniels may or may not run for the White House in 2012. But the courage of those who do run should be judged by one issue above all: their willingness to put substantive entitlement reform on the table, instead of vague but crowd-pleasing rhetoric. If conservatives assess Daniels on that basis, he will come out ahead.

Avik Roy is the President of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (, a non-partisan, non-profit think tank.

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