If you stand on the steps of a state capitol building and throw a rock (with a really strong arm), the first building you can hit has a good chance of being the headquarters of the state teacher union. For interest groups, proximity to the capitol is a way of displaying power and influence. The teacher union, more than any other interest group, strives to be the closest. They want to remind everyone that among powerful interest groups, they are the most powerful – a prince among princes.
To see who has the most powerful digs, Jonathan Butcher and I actually bothered to measure just how close interest group offices are to state capitol buildings. We started with a list of the 25 most influential interest groups, as compiled by Fortune magazine. We then used Google Maps to plot the location of the state offices of those 25 interest groups and measured the distance to the capitol building.
The results are illuminating. Of the 25 most influential interest groups, the teacher union is the closest in 14 of the 50 states. The labor union, AFL-CIO, is the closest in 7 states. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and Nation Federation of Independent Business are the closest in 5 states, each. The trial lawyers lobby, the American Association for Justice, is the closest in 4 states.
The teacher union is among the four closest interest groups in 27 states. The trial lawyers are in the top four in 22 states, followed by the AARP in 20 states and the AFL-CIO in 19 states.
In Nebraska, the teacher union office is only 210 feet from the capitol building. In Pennsylvania it is only 312 feet away. In Alabama, Delaware, and South Dakota, the teacher union headquarters is about 500 feet away.
If we gave four points for being closest, three for being the second closes, two for being third closest, and one for being the fourth closest, teacher unions would have a total of 85 points. No other group would have more than 60 points. Only four of the 25 groups would have above 40 points, with the trial lawyers, AARP, and AFL-CIO joining the teacher union in this elite group. But even among this expense-account dinner crowd, the teacher union is way ahead.
The teacher union doesn’t strive to be the closest because the extra time it takes to walk or drive a few more blocks will make the difference in a pivotal vote. They strive to be the closest because it is a visible display of their power and influence. It’s a symbol of the connections and resources they can devote to something as trivial as having the closest office, just like the status obtained from having the best seats at a concert or sporting event. If they can blow money on that, do you really want to mess with them?
But much of the power of interest groups is little more than bluff. It is to their advantage to exaggerate their power and influence precisely because doing so enhances the power and influence they actually have. Yet despite all of the fear and trembling among politicos of the consequences of crossing the teacher union, they can be beaten.
In fact, it is striking how often the teacher union loses even with all of its resources and displays of power. In the face of union opposition to structural reforms, there are now 21 voucher or tax credit programs in 13 states sending students to private schools at public expense. There are more than one million students attending charter schools in the 40 states that have charter programs. Merit pay for teachers is being tried in New York, Florida, Texas, Nashville, and several new districts under a federal pilot program.
The teacher union doesn’t want people to think that they can lose. They want to impress folks with their prime real estate and well-heeled lobbyists. But eventually it is hard to sustain really bad ideas in public policy – and the teacher union has embraced some really bad ideas. Eventually the “puffery” of swank offices succumbs to the substantive pursuit of good policy. In the end, the power of the teacher union may be, in the words of Chairman Mao, little more than a paper tiger – or a well-placed building.