Boycott threats pressured dozens of corporations to cut ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council after Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Florida and stand-your-ground gun laws were exposed as the shadowy organization’s handiwork.
But the multinational corporations supporting and framing ALEC’s work are just the overseers of a sophisticated network responsible for a raft of corporate-friendly bills across the nation. State politicians are the workhorses. They are sent forth from corporate-funded meetings at resort settings to sponsor and pass cookie-cutter laws, and then are rewarded with campaign contributions from the same business partners.
Indiana has an impressive army of ALEC soldiers, concealed by an undeserved exemption in the state’s lobbying law and successful in pushing through voter ID, anti-regulation, education, health care and more laws championed by the organization. Then there are ALEC’s Hoosier supply troops: Gov. Mitch Daniels, state Superintendent Tony Bennett, Rep. Todd Rokita and more. They champion the goals supported by ALEC to help spread its influence.
My regard for this organization goes back a long way, Daniels said in a 2008 address to ALEC’s Nation Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. Part of my assignment, my portfolio for President Reagan, was all of the intergovernmental work, so it was a happy part of that assignment to attend ALEC meetings.
Although ALEC does not share its membership list, some lawmakers proudly disclose their ALEC involvement in biographical information or news release announcements. They are overwhelmingly conservative Republicans. Indianapolis Republican David Frizzell, House majority whip, is national chairman. Sen. James Buck, a Kokomo Republican, is a member of ALEC’s national board. Rep. David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake, is Buck’s state co-chairman. About two dozen of the 150 Hoosier lawmakers are believed to be members.
The organization describes its purpose as bringing together state legislators and private sector representatives to find sound policy solutions to complex issues, focusing primarily on economic growth and fiscal responsibility.
But it’s much more than that.
How it works
ALEC was founded in 1973 by conservative activists, including the late Paul Wey- rich, who once proclaimed that he did not want everyone to vote.
Our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down, he told evangelical leaders in 1980.
Not surprisingly, voter-suppression efforts, including voter ID requirements, are an ALEC trademark.
The Washington-based organization is made up of two primary groups: conservative state lawmakers from across the country and corporate representatives and groups such as the National Rifle Association. Publicly, its leadership team is headed by Frizzell and a board of directors made up of legislators. Practically, its leaders are the corporate representatives who mostly underwrite its operation, according to Brendan Fischer, who has studied and written about ALEC as a law fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wis.
It’s an organization designed to facilitate corporate influence; to allow corporations to lobby politicians and promote their interests, he said. It’s not just set up to give corporations a voice or to communicate concerns; they already have that freedom – it’s called lobbying. That’s regulated.
Instead of sending lobbyists to the hallways of 50 statehouses, ALEC brings the legislators to vacation destinations.
Many times these trips would be unaffordable to legislators, Fischer said in an interview. So ALEC has a scholarship program’ that allows corporate members to contribute and avoid state ethics and lobbying laws. Once they are at these ALEC conferences, the same corporations that may have paid for these trips are sitting side by side with these legislators.
After hours, Fischer notes, the corporate members are free to wine and dine the lawmakers, or treat them to rounds of golf or other entertainment, all without the prying eyes of the media or pesky requirements of lobbying disclosure. Some lawmakers even hold fundraising events at ALEC conferences, pocketing campaign contributions from the same individuals advising them on legislation.
What ALEC does is create an environment where legislators are going to be more receptive to corporate influence, he said.
Eight task forces, directed by a public chair and a private chair, are divided into subject areas covering virtually every type of legislation. In closed sessions, they supposedly hammer out bills to advance their common aims of free-market, limited-government solutions.
The engine of ALEC is these task forces, Fischer said. This is where the work gets done.
But how much clout a citizen-lawmaker might have within a room full of industry experts is questionable.
The private chair of the Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development task force, for example, is an attorney for State Farm insurance.
The education panel private chair is vice president of Connections Academy, a company that operates cyber-charter schools and sells online education programs. Among the panel’s model bills? A one-to-one reading improvement act requiring schools to electronically align a school’s instructional resources to state standards – coincidentally, a service offered by Connections Academy.
In the last legislative session, ALEC member Sen. Jim Banks, a Columbia City Republican, filed a bill requiring all Indiana students to complete an online course before graduation. His bill passed the Senate but died in the House after some lawmakers began questioning the load of mandates placed on schools.
Education bills approved by Indiana lawmakers in the 2011 session almost mirror ALEC’s directory of model legislation. There’s an early graduation scholarship incentive (the Mitch Daniels Early Graduation Scholarship); a statewide charter school authorizer (The Indiana Charter Schools Board); a teacher quality and recognition act (Indiana’s Excellence for Performance Awards For Teachers) and more.
Then there’s ALEC’s model Right to Work Act, delivered this year as Indiana House Enrolled Act 1001. The proponents’ leading expert on right-to-work laws? Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist who also serves on ALEC’s board of scholars.
Indiana’s ALEC ties are interesting in another way. The state is one of just three that specifically exempts ALEC from lobbyist status.
Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, said the exemption to a 2010 ethics bills was added after a Senate Rules Committee debate. The amendment stated that ALEC and five other organizations should not be considered lobbying groups.
We didn’t have a problem with the National Council of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments, she said of the discussion. They took that and tried to say that ALEC was the same thing. That’s a gigantic stretch. They are just not the same kind of organization. Their funding is coming from corporate members with very specific interests.
Vaughn said ALEC’s exemption is an end run around the ethics law’s prohibition on out-of-state travel paid by lobbyists.
It’s ironic that a legislator could be banned from attending an event directly paid for by a lobbyist out of state, but they could go on ALEC’s dime and meet that same lobbyist, she said. These are cover groups. They provide cover for the same corporations who have to register as lobbyists. It’s an end run around disclosure.
Campaign contributions also beg for transparency. ProPublica, a non-profit investigative journalism group, has compiled campaign contributions to ALEC legislators from ALEC corporate members. Frizzell, the national chairman, received more than $35,000 in contributions from AT&T, Enron, Abbott Laboratories, Altria and other ALEC members between 1998 and 2010, according to the report.
One of ALEC’s initiatives, ironically, is to address an unprecedented shift of power from the states to the federal government, and increasing levels of disquiet about this situation from the states and the American people.
But ALEC’s approach – using the same state officials who frequently complain of a powerful federal government exerting its influence through mandates and requirements – is to shift power from the state capitals to the headquarters of multinational corporations.
Which prompts this question: How is policy dictated by pharmaceutical companies, health insurance companies and others with strong financial interest in health care better than health care policy enacted by a duly elected Congress?
Haven’t Hoosiers’ ceded fiscal control – not to the federal government, but to private interests – when so-called school reform measures cleverly generate business for private companies?
How are Indiana’s interests served when its lawmakers travel to distant resorts to meet in private with representatives of companies that clearly stand to benefit from a particular law? How is it not a conflict of interest for lawmakers to travel, wine and dine at their corporate partners’ expense?
Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Blue Cross Blue Shield and nearly a dozen more major companies have dropped their membership in ALEC since scrutiny of the organization intensified. But the same scrutiny should extend to the elected officials who have handed off their responsibility in exchange for vacation trips and campaign contributions.
Before the next election day, voters should demand to know whether they will be represented by the legislative candidate asking for their votes, or a group of corporations and trade groups seeking laws to benefit their bottom lines.