As a whole, the Wiki-leaked Podesta emails have offered more court-of-Clinton gossipy intrigue than original insight into how the Democratic nominee might govern on the most pressing issues likely to confront the next administration. But the BuryPensions blog points us to an exception: A draft of Hillary Clinton’s prepared opening statement for her appearance before the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees in June 2015.
While some centrist Democrats during the Obama years, especially at the state and local level, have recognized the need for changes to the way public sector unions negotiate their pension benefits (which now face a shortfall north of $3 trillion nationwide) Clinton’s remarks reflect a dogged commitment to the status quo:
We need to protect the right to organize and bargain for public workers in particular.
I am fully committed to standing with you against the coordinated assault on public-sector unions led by Republicans and their corporate backers. […]
I’ll also work with you to advance a broad strategy on retirement security – one that protects defined benefit plans and defends Social Security and ensures that every worker can retire with dignity.
Of course, Clinton’s staff developed these talking points as the candidate was competing with a democratic socialist for the support of public sector union leaders, so it’s impossible to know how heartfelt her views actually are. But they are consistent with the hostility to civil service reform she has expressed throughout the campaign, most notably with respect to teachers and education. In any case, her actual views may not matter as much as the fact that she has now committed her administration to supporting an unreformed blue model system that delivers public services of deteriorating quality. (The AFSCME endorsed Clinton four months after her speech).
The Democratic rebellion of 2016 is over; Clinton was able to seize her party’s nomination after a drawn-out primary battle. But her previously undisclosed remarks to the union leaders highlight another potential route for an insurgency within the party: Instead of championing the aging union leaders who control blue state governments and donate to political campaigns, an innovative Democratic candidate could stand up for the predominantly Democratic constituencies that suffer the most when public services like education, welfare, and public safety are inadequate or unaccountable because of the civil service’s employment-for-life model.
Even if the politics initially cut her way, Clinton’s commitment to defined-benefit pensions and strong collective bargaining rights may be put to the test by arithmetic realities sometime during her tenure. Governments like Puerto Rico and Detroit and Stockton have already been forced into bankruptcy after spending decades indulging powerful unions and propping their systems up with deceptive accounting schemes. The next time the economy goes south and tax revenues fall, it’s plausible that larger governments—including Chicago—might judge it in their interest to file for Chapter Nine, and go hat-in-hand to the federal government seeking relief.
If the pension time bomb explodes in a big way, it won’t be enough for the federal government to simply bail out troubled municipalities and instruct them to go about business as usual all over again, especially in the likely event that Republicans control at least one house of Congress. If the Clinton administration is prepared to offer relief to cities driven to bankruptcy by public sector unions and can-kicking legislators, it should also have a clear idea of the kind of reforms it can ask for in return to make state and local governance more sustainable and reduce the likelihood that the crisis will come roaring back.