- Terelle Jerricks
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
“It is a worrisome marriage of corporations and politicians, which seems to normalize a kind of corruption of the legislative process” – Lisa Graves, Executive Director, Center for Media and Democracy
For almost four decades, the American Legislative Exchange Council, known by its acronym, “ALEC,” has worked hard on behalf of corporate America and right wing causes, helping to draft, build support for and pass laws through state legislatures across the nation—and doing so in relative anonymity, even as it skirts numerous state laws limiting corporate gift-giving and other forms of influence-peddling. It was never really clear why ALEC’s existence stayed such a secret, particularly since it wasn’t a secret. It’s just that, somehow, people seemed to ignore it, even though it wielded staggering amounts of power in legally questionable ways.
Then, on March 15, 2011, University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon—the incoming President of the American Historical Association—decided to start a blog. And for his very first post he wrote about ALEC and its role in the barrage of pro-corporate, anti-union, right wing legislation that was causing such an uproar in Wisconsin and other states at the time. The post was titled, “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn’t Start Here),” and it got roughly 800,000 hits in just 10 days. Suddenly, everyone was talking about ALEC.
Among other things, Cronon discussed ALEC’s membership structure—cheap memberships for state legislators ($100 a year), pricey ones for corporations ($7,000 and up).
He called attention to ALEC’s close relationship with the State Policy Network, “which helps coordinate the activities of a wide variety of conservative think tanks operating at the state level throughout the country,” and he gave examples of earlier research—including a 2002 report from Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council, entitled “Corporate America’s Trojan Horse in the States.”
These were indications that ALEC had attracted attention from time to time, but never anywhere near as much as was warranted by its power. He offered specific leads and suggestions for further research—leads that were immediately taken up by participants in his comment thread, and others across the Internet.
A few months later, another Wisconsin-based organization, the Center for Media and Democracy, obtained “more than 800 model bills approved by companies through ALEC meetings,” said Executive Director Lisa Graves. The Center for Media and Democracy analyzed and marked up the bills, then posted them at a new website, ALEC Exposed, which went live in July 2011.
“Though thousands of ALEC-approved model bills have been publicly introduced across the country, ALEC’s role facilitating the language in the bills and the corporate vote for them is not well known,” The Center for Media and Democracy noted in a Frequently Asked Questions sheet posted at the site.
Around the same time, Common Cause began investigating ALEC as well. “We began working on ALEC a year ago,” Nick Surgey, a legal associate at Common Cause told Random Lengths News.
“We got to July 2011, we had significant evidence ALEC was involved in lobbying.”
This might seem obvious at first glance. But, Surgey explained, ALEC has always portrayed itself publicly as an “educational” organization, thus qualifying for 501 (c) 3 tax exempt status under the IRS tax code.
“ALEC claims they don’t spend a single dollar lobbying. We only have to show they do some lobbying,” Surgey explained. “We contacted the IRS in August with a modest filing” and kept on digging.
“During the course of my research, it became clear that ALEC not only engaged in some lobbying, but that it was systematic. The entire organization exists in order to promote legislation…. It became clear to us that it was ALEC’s entire reason for existing.”
In the end, Common Cause put together a 4,000-page complaint. “It weighed 49 pounds,” Surgey said, providing detailed, step-by-step evidence over a two-year period, a typical legislative cycle. “People just didn’t have the evidence,” prior to that, Surgey explained. The complain was filed in April, 2012, with the pro bono assistance of Phillips & Cohen, a whistleblower law firm that has recovered more than $7 billion in fines and settlements. But by then, ALEC had become truly notorious.
On February 26, 2012, a 17-year old black teenager named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a wannabe cop named George Zimmerman, who police question, but released without charge, citing Florida’s so-called “stand your ground” law, which vastly expanded the right to use deadly force. As the Trayvon Martin case grabbed the nation’s attention, people became aware that such laws–dubbed “kill at will” by critics–had been passed by dozens of states since Florida lead the way in 2005. It was the National Rifle Association that got the ball rolling in Florida, but once that law was passed, it was an ALEC task force that unanimously approved the law as “model legislation” which it pushed nationwide, following ALEC’s standard practice.
The nation’s leading online civil rights group, Color of Change, had already begun a campaign against ALEC in December, 2011, pressuring companies to leave ALEC over its support for voter ID laws that suppress minority, youth and low-income voting. But in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, the visibility and effectiveness of Color of Change’s anti-ALEC campaign skyrocketed. More than a dozen top companies quickly quit ALEC, including McDonalds, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Wendy’s, Mars Inc. and Kraft Foods. In April, ALEC announced it was disbanding the Public Safety and Elections Task Force—responsible for both laws Color of Change was targeting—supposedly to refocus its attention on economic issues.
But Color of Change decried the move as “nothing more than a public relations stunt aimed at diverting attention from its agenda, which has done serious damage to our communities.” Its anti-ALEC campaign has continued, and just this past week Amazon.com became the latest company to severe ties with ALEC.
Meanwhile, ALEC itself has already admitted the changes are only skin-deep. “ALEC’s decision won’t impact the important issues we’ve worked on,” the chair of the disbanded task force, Republican State Rep. Jerry Madden of Texas, told the Christian Post.
Brendan Fischer, a law fellow with the Center for Media and Democracy, fleshed out what Madden meant.
“This includes prison privatization, bills to put more people in prison for more time, anti-immigrant bills like Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, as well as the ‘Stand Your Ground’ and vote suppression laws that have recently attracted attention,” Fischer told Random Lengths. “These laws all remain on the ALEC books.”
What’s more, some of the problems raised by these more controversial bills are present in other ALEC legislation as well. “These ‘model bills,’ like all of the legislation in the ALEC bill set, were voted on by corporations and special interest groups sitting as equals with legislators,” Fischer pointed out. “This small circle of privileged individuals approved these bills with little impact from the populations that would actually be affected by them.”
What’s more, Fischer added, “ALEC allows corporations and special interest groups to have an inordinate amount of influence and access with state legislators. Despite many states having laws against corporations or lobbyists giving expensive gifts to legislators, through the ALEC ‘scholarship
program,’ corporations can essentially buy flights and hotel rooms for elected officials so they can attend ALEC conferences. The reason we have these laws against legislators receiving gifts or bribes is clear: we do not want our elected officials unduly influenced by special interests, and we DO want our elected officials to remain primarily accountable to the people that elected them rather than out-of-state special interests.”
In short, though many of the individual activities ALEC engages in may seem innocent and unexceptional—though others, such as de facto corporate gift-giving, are not. But it’s the totality of ALEC’s activities that what clearly constitutes a corruption of the democratic process.
A similar point can be made about the legislation ALEC promotes. Bills get considered and passed individually, but ALEC develops them like product lines, with carefully crafted cumulative effects far beyond what first meets the eye. ALEC’s deregulatory and privatization agendas cumulatively shift power away from individual citizens and structures that empower them, and toward private power structures—corporations, trade associations, foundations, and groups like ALEC itself.
ALEC’s role in undermining public education via so-called “education reform” is a microcosm of how it operates across the board, as became clear when Random Lengths spoke with education writer, consultant and activist Jeff Bryant. In some cases, what was striking was the sheer number of bills being pushed. Bryant pointed to Maine, citing “13 education bills with ALEC ties.”
In other cases it was a matter of relentless chipping away at public institutions—such as raising the cap on the number of charter schools in North Carolina from 100 to 150. (Charter schools are exploding in numbers nationwide, even while research shows they actually underperform public schools on average, while increasing racial segregation.)
Still other laws seem to offer sensible benefits to certain children—but with hidden costs that require relevant experience and understanding to appreciate. Bryant cited one ALEC-backed law, for example, which provides special needs children with a voucher “to use money to attend any school of choice, even private religious academies”—schools that have previously been excluded from public funding.
Not only does such legislation potentially fund separatist, authoritarian institutions with public money, it also disperses scarce resources for the most costly aspect of public education over the past several decades, thus making it that much harder for public schools to meet the needs of all the students that they serve. Corporate “education reform” is chock full of similar piecemeal “solutions” that actually increase the burdens on public education. And ALEC stands ready to push each and every one of them, including various laws to weaken or outright destroy public employee unions.
“It’s a really sinister group that is really destructive across many areas, including public education,” Bryant concludes. But the destructive impacts can be harder to see on a case-by-case basis, which is why the organizing activities of the Center for Media and Democracy, Common Cause, Color of Change and others have been so invaluable. After decades of operating in the dark, the spotlight is finally being focused on ALEC, and people are starting to see the cumulative effects that ALEC has had in mind all along.
Late Wednesday, May 30, after Random Lengths had already gone to press, the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, announced that it was “suspending” its membership in ALEC, which it had joined in 1993.
“Previously, we expressed our concerns about ALEC’s decision to weigh in on issues that stray from its core mission ‘to advance the Jeffersonian principles of free markets,'” Maggie Sans, Wal-Mart vice president of public affairs and government relations, said in a May 30 letter addressed to ALEC’s national chairman and executive director, as reported by Reuters.
“We feel that the divide between these activities and our purpose as a business has become too wide. To that end, we are suspending our membership in ALEC.”
Of course, ALEC’s lobbying on behalf of specific wealthy and powerful corporations has nothing to do with free markets, except rhetorically, and everything to do with protecting specific monopolies and oligopolies. And Wal-Mart, in turn, has benefited from billions of dollars of federal, state and local subsidies over the decades–a key factor that has helped it crush countless other businesses who could not or would not secure similar non-market subsidies to keep themselves alive. The bottom line is simply that ALEC has become a toxic political liability, even for one of its most conservative corporate backers.