To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.
-- Thomas Jefferson, 1779
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE a law that protects college students from being tricked into contributing money to a political pressure group when they pay their tuition bills?
A sensible reform? An ethical safeguard? Common sense?
That's not what Ralph Nader calls it. When New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman signed just such a measure into law on March 31, the self-proclaimed "consumer activist" attacked Whitman savagely for her "cowardly antidemocracy decision." It "demonstrates," Nader snarled, "her hatred of citizen democracy."
Hardly the reaction you'd expect from a guy who holds himself out as the enemy of scams and deception. Ah, but this time it was Nader's ox that was being gored.
The name of that ox is PIRG -- for Public Interest Research Groups, a web of liberal lobbies spun by Nader in the early 1970s. On scores of campuses in dozens of states (including some 25 schools in Massachusetts), PIRGs collect huge amounts of money through a dishonest scheme called a "negative checkoff." Each semester, students are automatically charged for a "donation" to PIRG of several dollars; the charge is included in their tuition. It isn't mandatory, but a student who is unwilling to finance PIRG's left-wing political agenda must affirmatively refuse to pay. PIRG figures that many students -- and many parents -- won't realize the fee is optional or even notice it on the bill.
Sure enough, amid the tumult of each new semester, most students just pay up -- and PIRG grows ever richer. In New Jersey last year, NJPIRG used the negative checkoff to milk students for an estimated $200,000. In Florida, the take was about $320,000. In Massachusetts, $400,000. (In some states, the PIRG "donation" is mandatory. New York students were euchered out of $800,000 -- forced to subsidize NYPIRG's political objectives whether they agreed with them or not.)
The New Jersey law Whitman signed converts the negative checkoff to a positive one. From now on, New Jersey students will indicate on their tuition bill if they do want to give PIRG money, not if they don't. No one will be conned into paying dues out of confusion. NJPIRG will be funded only by those who truly share its views, and the practice Thomas Jefferson called "sinful and tyrannical" will come to an end.
Unfortunately, New Jersey is the only state where that will be true.
In Massachusetts, the Legislature repeatedly tries to end the swindle and is repeatedly stymied. A few months back, it passed a measure ordering state colleges to print a boldface notice on tuition bills informing students that MassPIRG's fee is voluntary. But a drafting error
mysteriously crept into the bill when it reached Gov. William Weld's desk, and he used that as a pretext to veto it. So the House of Representatives passed the measure again. Within hours, the House speaker, a PIRG ally, quietly arranged through a bit of parliamentary smoke and mirrors for it to be unpassed. (The reform did clear the Senate, and it's still alive in a conference committee.)
PIRG's behavior is hypocritical beyond measure. If an electric utility tried to pull the same stunt -- adding a murky "donation" to its customers' bills, then using the revenue for political advocacy -- PIRG would be hollering its lungs out in protest. But then, PIRG always has plenty to say about the integrity of others. Itself it holds to a far lower standard.
It oughtn't take an act of Congress to stop Nader's raid on college tuition payments. But millions of those payments are subsidized with federal loans and grants. Congress is entitled to insist that the money it appropriates for education be used for education -- not for
US Rep. Gerald Solomon, the New York Republican who is chairman of the House Rules Committee, has drafted language designed to shield students from PIRG's subterfuge. His amendment would route federal funds away from any campus that funds political pressure groups by means of "compulsory fees, student activity fees or other charges to students." Last week, the House Appropriations Committee voted not to attach the measure to a major spending bill. But Solomon, who worries that "the distinction between civic education and political indoctrination is becoming ever more blurred," thinks support will rise sharply as his colleagues learn about PIRG's duplicity.
"We're not talking about chess clubs or community service clubs," he says. "PIRGs have a distinctively political agenda in issues that have no relationship to higher education."
To repeat: It's a pity that Congress should have to step in to keep students from being mulcted by PIRG's sophisticated political machine. But if college presidents can't be counted on to ensure basic fairness, and if Christie Whitman is the only governor in America tough enough to brave Ralph Nader's slanders, then the time has come for Congress to act.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).