Corporations got a problem? Call ALEC
This under the radar conservative-corporate political behemoth is having major impact on the state level.
Opinions, Matt Singer, University of Montana, June 21, 2005
This under-the-radar conservative-corporate political behemoth is having major impact on the state level.
By Matt Singer, University of Montana
The president of a private prison company faces a problem: not enough prisoners. The solution? Call Alec. Ken Lay wants energy deregulation to move more quickly, opening the door for market manipulation by his company Enron. The solution? Call Alec. A tobacco corporation wants to fight the onslaught of taxes that would force his company to pay the costs of the health impacts of smoking. The solution? Call Alec.
But who, exactly, is Alec?
Even the politically aware can be forgiven for their ignorance about this conservative ghostbuster. ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council – does its best to appear innocuous and fly beneath the radar. In fact, it bills itself as “the nation’s largest bipartisan, individual membership organization of state legislators” that seeks to “advance…Jeffersonian principles.”
Of course, when ALEC says bipartisan, it is referring to the award it recently gave Senator Zell Miller. And by Jeffersonian principles, ALEC apparently means turning legislators into corporate whores. Less than 1% of ALEC’s funding comes from legislator members. The bulk comes from large corporate donors.
That corporate money buys access, and lots of it. ALEC’s “Private Enterprise Board” – a second Board of Directors for the organization – reads like a who’s who of America’s most powerful lobbies: pharmaceuticals, tobacco, the oil industry, and insurance companies are all well represented. There are over 300 corporate sponsors of ALEC, including Coors, Phillip Morris, Shell, Texaco, American Nuclear Energy Council, and many more. The “tort reform” crowd, medical interests, and anti-environmental crowd have gotten what they paid for, too.
Recent ALEC reports include such great pieces of research as “ America’s Judicial Hellholes: Is Salvation Possible?”, “ Liberty for All: How our Freedom is Threatened by the Movement to Balance State Budgets by Raising Excise Taxes,” “Making Privatization Work for State Government,” and “Toxic Mold: The Danger of Knee-Jerk Legislation.” Personally, I know when it comes to toxic mold, my first concern is about legislation.
Additionally, each corporate member of ALEC has the opportunity to pony up a few thousand additional dollars (the actual number is an ALEC secret) for the right to sit on public policy task forces comprised of state legislators and as many corporate representatives as there are corporations willing to pay to play (that’s right, you can, literally, buy votes in ALEC). And where your typical Americans might see conflicts of interest, ALEC sees only opportunity, which might explain how industry representatives end up crafting model legislation that goes under ALEC’s banner, including proposals to allow for-profit private businesses to take over many critical public services including schools, prisons, public transportation and various social services.
Once crafted, the legislation gets distributed through ALEC’s powerful national network. Each state has its own ALEC chair, a state representative or senator charged with getting ALEC’s legislation adopted (and you thought they were supposed to represent you), and ALEC counts roughly 2,400 of the nation’s 7,200 state legislators as members, including many caucus and chamber leaders.
The state officers find sponsors and co-sponsors and move forward with a message crafted with ALEC’s assistance. Suddenly, private prison profit becomes “Three strikes and you’re out.” Cash for Enron execs becomes all about consumer choice. And the Bush administration’s defunding of Medicaid becomes an opportunity to test “market-based solutions” for health care. Given that most state legislators are part-time politicians with little to no staff support, the ALEC model has been frighteningly effective.
And ALEC is on the move.
The organization maintains ten task forces, a staff of dozens, and a budget of over $5 million annually. It hosts trainings for first-time legislators who share its principles. And it works state-by-state to improve coordination, messaging, and strategic posturing of its members. And, perhaps most offensively, ALEC gives awards for “excellence in journalism” to the likes of Fox News’ Tony Snow (who ALEC applauds as an “ outspoken advocate for the free market”), ABC’s anti-consumer advocate John Stossel, and Don Lambro of the Washington Times.
ALEC is most effective, in part, because it combines its innocuous name and vague-sounding mission statement with a deep-set conservative, anti-government philosophy. It hides its corporate donors, which number over 300, behind a wall of amiable state legislators. It crafts talking points that have nothing to do with the real justification for the legislation. And it does it all with a giant grin.
For those who would wed our government with corporate interests, ALEC is a powerful tool. For those of us who would keep our government of, by, and for the people, it is a powerful reminder that there is an important battle happening at the state level as well. Thankfully, a new organization is doing that. The Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN) was just launched. PLAN will provide the same support to progressive, forward-thinking legislators that ALEC provides to state policy-making corporate sell-outs. Isn’t it about time to give the good guys a hand?
Matt Singer is a freelance writer and student of economics at The University of Montana-Missoula. This summer, he is interning with the Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN). But the views expressed here are his own.