Last week, protests erupted around the country targeting the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its corporate sponsors. The idea for the “F29” protest began in Portland and spread to the rest of the country to highlight the increasing presence and influence of corporate money and power. ALEC is a key part of the right-wing infrastructure to abuse the legislative system by pushing corporate-agenda driven policy that adds to wealth disparity, deregulates polluters, and attacks public employees.
What is ALEC?
The American Legislative Exchange Council, known simply as ALEC, is a legislative think-tank and clearinghouse where corporations write state laws and deliver them directly into the hands of politicians. It is made up of some of the nation’s largest, most profitable corporations, like Koch Companies, ExxonMobil, and Bank of America.
Though ALEC has existed for decades, little was known about the organization until very recently. ALEC is organized as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization (though Common Cause has asked the IRS to investigate this designation.) This allows ALEC to keep its documents private only to its legislative and corporate members. This means that the very people who are affected by policy that ALEC pushes have no right to inspect the model legislation, nor are legislators required to note when a bill they introduce is based on ALEC models.
But in July of 2011, a series of internal ALEC documents were leaked. This trove of information included model bills, organizational emails, and details of ALEC’s internal process. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and The Nation magazine teamed up to make this information available to the public by hiring a team of experts to analyze the 800 plus bills. They created the ALEC Exposed website to house the ALEC bills and the experts’ analyses. For their investigative journalism, they were recognized and awarded the prestigious Sidney Award by the Hillman Foundation.
So who’s behind ALEC?
On their award-winning website, ALECexposed.org, CMD writes that “ALEC is not a lobby; it is not a front group. It is much more powerful than that.”
98% of ALEC revenue comes from its 300 corporate members and only 2% of its revenue comes from the “membership dues” of its 2,000+ legislative members. It is unknown how many bills are actually penned by the corporate members versus the legislative members, but corporate interests are certainly represented in the bills. Consider that ALEC’s corporate members include tobacco companies, for-profit prisons, and for-profit schools – it’s no surprise then that recent ALEC legislation has included tax breaks for tobacco companies, prison expansion, education privatization measures, and the promotion of private on-line schools. (ALECexposed.org)
Internal documents revealed that corporate and legislative members sit as equals on task forces where each member has a “voice and vote” on the model legislation. This means that corporate votes have a large role in dictating which legislative models are sent home and introduced in state legislatures. (ALECexposed.org)
Though ALEC is described as non-partisan on its own website, CMD describes ALEC members as “a ‘who’s who’ of the extreme right.” In fact, only one (1) of ALEC’s legislative members is a Democrat. Some of ALEC’s notable members have included Gov. John Kasich (OH), Gov. Rick Perry, Gov. Scott Walker (WI), Governor Jan Brewer (AZ), Donald Rumsfeld, House Speaker John Boehner. Oregon members include Rep. Kim Thatcher and Rep. Gene Whisnant, among others. (ALECexposed.org)
As for its corporate members, ALEC has strong, direct ties to Koch Industries and the Koch brothers personally. (And if you don’t know why this should give you the heebie-jeebies, go read this right now.) Other notable members include Phillip Morris USA, ExxonMobil, Bank of America, and the Coors family.
Recent ALEC-sponsored bills around the country have attacked public workers in Minnesota, gave tax breaks to large corporations in Florida, and promoted anti-environment measures in Texas and Louisiana.
Is this even legal?
Much like Stephen Colbert’s sputtering over the insanity of the legality of his SuperPAC shenanigans, we are left confounded over the technical legality of ALEC’s operations. ALEC provides decadent vacations, meals, and drinks to legislators and their families free of charge in exchange for one-on-one time to promote biased legislation, which often become law. As much as that may sound like bribery, ALEC carefully states that they are providing “scholarships” to conferences which simply happen to occur in swanky locales and that “absolutely no lobbying occurs” at these meetings.
But as the New York Times editorial board wrote recently, “There is nothing illegal or unethical about ALEC’s work except that it further demonstrates the pervasive influence of corporate money and right-wing groups on the state legislative process.” Further, they write, “voters have a right to know whether the representatives they elect are actually writing the laws, or whether the job has been outsourced to big corporate interests.”
ALEC is committed to secrecy, but between the leaks to CMD and media pressure, information is slowly coming out. Up next: Which Oregon legislators are promoting ALEC legislation in Oregon?