Major Media Now Investigating ALEC

Front and center at the New York Times today is a report on the extent to which corporations control state legislatures through the”non-profit” American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC, which has been weaving its web for years and gotten a lot of attention in the blogosphere for at least two years, is now the focus of mainstream media thanks to the depredations of Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, the Trayvon Martin case, and the increasing prominence of the Koch Brothers. Until now, the Kochs’ names were mentioned in the Times when they contributed such huge sums to major New York arts institutions that their money was finally buying them a kind of respectability. Now we’re more apt to come across them in their important role as anti-American subversives — transferring political power from we-the-people to we-the-corporations.

…. A review of internal ALEC documents shows that this is only one facet of a sophisticated operation for shaping public policy at a state-by-state level. The records offer a glimpse of how special interests effectively turn ALEC’s lawmaker members into stealth lobbyists, providing them with talking points, signaling how they should vote and collaborating on bills affecting hundreds of issues. ...NYT

The Times is working with documents provided by Common Cause which, in turn, is using the information to bring the attention of government to ALEC’s abuse of its IRS-granted,non-profit status.

… “We know its mission is to bring together corporations and state legislators to draft profit-driven, anti-public-interest legislation, and then help those elected officials pass the bills in statehouses from coast to coast,” said the president of Common Cause, Bob Edgar. “If that’s not lobbying, what is?” …NYT

One ALEC spokesman accuses Common Cause of being jealous. Common Cause is a legitimate non-profit because it doesn’t profit from its work on citizens’ behalf. Moreover, its records are open. ALEC is a big-time actor in the interest of big money. It simply refuses access to information about its donors who, the documents show, see ALEC as a “good investment.”

… Although its board is made up of legislators, who pay $50 a year to belong, ALEC is primarily financed by more than 200 private-sector members, whose annual dues of $7,000 to $25,000 accounted for most of its $7 million budget in 2010.

Some companies give much more, all of it tax deductible: AT&T, Pfizer and Reynolds American each contributed $130,000 to $398,000, according to a copy of ALEC’s 2010 tax returns, obtained by The Times, that included donors’ names, which are normally withheld from public inspection. The returns show that corporate members pay stipends — it calls them “scholarships” — for lawmakers to travel to annual conferences, including a four-day retreat where ALEC spends as much as $250,000 on child care for members’ families. …NYT

Those conferences are where the dirty work of corporate influence on state law-making gets done. Just how it all works is now coming to light because Common Cause and the Times have managed to obtain the records of meetings. Take the issue of fracking and how Exxon Mobil got the exemptions it wanted.

…Last December, ALEC adopted model legislation, based on a Texas law, addressing the public disclosure of chemicals in drilling fluids used to extract natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The ALEC legislation, which has since provided the basis for similar bills submitted in five states, has been promoted as a victory for consumers’ right to know about potential drinking water contaminants.

A close reading of the bill, however, reveals loopholes that would allow energy companies to withhold the names of certain fluid contents, for reasons including that they have been deemed trade secrets. Most telling, perhaps, the bill was sponsored within ALEC by ExxonMobil, one of the largest practitioners of fracking — something not explained when ALEC lawmakers introduced their bills back home. …NYT

Examination of the process that led that bill clearly shows that the oil companies, not the legislators, had the final say on the content of the bill.

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Suppose you are “just” citizens worried about corporate control over your state’s schools, its environment, its political leadership? Just as the federal government is increasingly ruled by corporate interests so the states are ceding power to the corporations who fund ALEC.

ALEC’s pressure on Texas on behalf of energy companies is one example among fifty. Ohio is another powerful example, as is clearly shown in this report on the people of the state of Ohio vs. fracking.

Cross posted from Prairie Weather

Author: PRAIRIE WEATHER

20 Comments

  1. There is no way that ALEC deserves a 501(C)3 status. It’s definitely an abuse of the system and ALEC should owe lots of back taxes as well as losing that status ASAP.

  2. Government per se isn’t the problem and never has been (despite fabricated memes going back to Reagan). The problem arises when government is taken over by powerful interests that are all about profits and control, absent conscience and democracy.

  3. ALEC, like the other Alec should leave this country. There undue influence, as was pointed out above, should rescind the 501(c)(3)designation. They appear to be a lobbying organization and their contributors should be disclosed. This stinks.

  4. ALEC should worry me why? A $7M annual budget puts them in the same league as a smallish grocery store. That hardly sounds like democratic kryptonite.

  5. How large is the NRA’s budget? A smaller budget doesn’t mean much if it’s an organization viewed as beneficial to a lawmaker. An organization can have an outsized influence.

    I think it’s interesting that lawmakers pay to belong. That in itself shows its outsized influence.

    Besides I wonder if the lawmakers pass the membership fees to taxpayers….

    Seriously… it’s an organization that lawmakers pay to belong to. The organization tells lawmakers how to vote, and chances are the lawmakers pass the fees to taxpayers. I thought citizens elected lawmakers to think for themselves.

    I didn’t realize citizens elected lawmakers who would turn around and pay an organization membership fees and have that organization tell them which laws to pass (and even provide the language in the bills).

  6. I’m not sure why the press has been so slow to report on this– I guess there is a dearth of investigative reporters. I am against corporate influence on any level of government because corporations are amoral and undemocratic. They push for special conditions that benefit a narrow segment of society at the expense of the majority.

    The Founders would be rolling in their graves at this ginning up of the system for corporate profit

  7. Yes, it sounds like they’re pulling beyond their weight in influence, Stockboy. Again, I’m not sure what part of that is supposed to be scary: that citizens are influencing the government, that they’re doing it through multiple layers of groups, or that some groups are finding cleverer approaches than others?

    Of course, the post is trying to scare us with none of those things but rather the content of ALEC’s views (“anti-public-interest”) and the people behind it (“the Koch brother”). Democracy is in trouble, you see, because these people and these ideas are getting heard in the corridors of power. What a deeply undemocratic point of view.

  8. I don’t see that anyone is attempting to ‘scare’ anyone else. These reports are simply exposing some obscure details of a little-known process that leads to legislation that affects daily life.

    This is the role of press in a democracy. Nothing scary about it.

    There’s no way that ALEC deserves 501(C)3 status as a ‘charity.’ However, even if it’s revoked, this organization will still find a way to act _ and those actions should also be subject to scrutiny, because they affect all Americans.

    Corporate interests have every right to organize and lobby. However, they have to expect these activities, insofar as they affect public policy, should be open to the light of day, and that’s what these reports are about. If the buying public doesn’t like what their companies are about via ALEC, they have the right to boycott or otherwise pressure companies as consumers. It’s called ‘free market.’

  9. Zeeuw,
    Fair enough, but when will the press do due diligence on the same processes going on between Democratic politicians and special interest groups?

    The one sided nature of the investigative reporting is what makes this come across as fearmongering. And before anyone cries “false equivalence”. I’m not only talking about the bogeyman George Sporos and the many front groups he funds, but also a lot of other Kcollusions….corporations that influenced (wrote parts of?) ACA, Dodd-Frank, the stimulus bill, TARP, etc…and automakers unions writing the terms of the bailout, and green energy corps writing the terms of their loans, etc. this kind of thing needs to be examined on a bipartisan basis.

  10. Lol, ‘Sporos’ was just a typo, lest anyone waste any time trying to figure out some other implied meaning.

  11. Zeeuw, I agree with your summary of the issue. “ALEC is breaking the rules” is a reasonable way to frame it, because it focuses on a matter of process. The author might still be guilty of the reporting bias CStanley suggests, but at least the point is cleanly made.

    “ALEC is enabling evil oil companies to do scary fracking” puts the emphasis on the people and the opinions. That’s a valid objection to raise to ALEC, which sends a pretty clear message that they’re objectionable because they’re conservative, and all the talk about process and democracy is just a ruse. The OP is giving us a “strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.”

  12. Hi, CStanley, Thanks for your reply.

    ‘when will the press do due diligence on the same processes going on between Democratic politicians and special interest groups?’

    They do, a lot, if you count FOX News and the Drudge report as ‘press.’

    Other mainstream media outlets also investigate and report improper collusion between Democratic and leftist groups and legislators, but the short answer to your question is that the scale and depravity on that side is just no match for what goes down with an ALEC. Labor Unions are the only thing even approaching it, and even they are peanuts in comparison. Also, they are more transparent in promoting their interests, not attempting to cynically pass themselves off as a bipartisan ‘charity.’ An ACORN or even a Solyndra _ both heavily reported in media _ are a minuscule blip compared to the way right wing organizations have been able to manipulate policy in the past few decades, and to the way they’ve pushed the boundaries of appropriate behavior.

    Hi, Dr. J, and thanks again for your great feedback. I appreciate your point, but for one thing, the story doesn’t mention the words ‘scary’ or ‘evil.’ The tone of the article is negative _ although I woudn’t call it deliberate fear-mongering’ _ toward ALEC, and in that sensed biased, but this is a biased site. I’d venture that it’s biased in this case anyway on the side of morality. As we’d all agree, what ALEC is doing is disingenuous and promotes potentially negative policies, such as for-profit prisons that have an interest in raising a crime rate, and attempting to pass off their for-profit motivation as ‘charitable.’ I’m reminded of Stephen Colbert’s great quote on reality having a strong ‘liberal bias.’

  13. My point though zeeuw, is how can anyone assess whether or not the scale is so disproportionate when the main reporting on the Democratic side’s infractions is being done by media organizations that are known to have a conservative bias. How do you know what you don’t know, in other words?

    As for your assessments of the scale, looking at the only objective metric that i know of, the scale of money involeved, i can’t help noting that the majority of the to “heavy hitters” listed on the Open Secrets website are the unions. I haven’t done the math but it looks to me like the aggregate totals would put that number far higher than the groups who fund lobbying on conservative policy.

  14. Also, zeeuw, to the point that Dr. j raised…i feel that the reason it matters is that on the principle of citizens opposing corruption, i would much rather see a unified front between conservatives and liberals. Framing the issue along partisan lines makes that much less likely to happen.

    For instance, the article raises the point that the ALEC stuff is mainly related to state level legislation. Conservative voters ought to be concerned about that because they tend to favor devolution of issues to the state and local level, in part because there’s a better opportuni for oversight. But framing this as opposition to the actual policies promoted by ALEC, instead of the process, prevents conservatives from finding common ground to join in the opposition.

  15. “I’m reminded of Stephen Colbert’s great quote on reality having a strong ‘liberal bias.’”

    Zeeuw, I’m reminded of this (painfully) almost every day in one way or another. I wish I wasn’t.

  16. Zeeuw, a lot of points there. You’re right that the post doesn’t use the words “scary” or “evil.” I characterize it that way because it invokes bogeymen like the Koch brothers and Exxon, whom liberals seem to fear as opaque and sinister political influences. It describes Exxon’s association as “most telling,” ie, more informative than the actual legislation in question. It doesn’t say quite what the Koches have to do with ALEC; they seem to be there for the atmosphere, like a figure in a hockey mask outside a haunted house.

    Regarding for-profit prisons, we had a big thread on them a couple months ago. The perverse incentives you’re concerned about are real. They’re also just as real in publicly-run prisons, as California can attest. Perhaps Mr. Colbert is right that reality has a liberal bias, but in that story the bias seemed to have crept in in the reporting.

  17. CStanley,’How do you know what you don’t know, in other words?’

    You don’t. That’s the definition of ‘not knowing.’

    A disturbing situation in a country where FOX is the dominant source of news.

    I would maintain that the non-FOX media cover organizational malfeasance on the left as thoroughly as they cover it on the right. The reason that you see less on the left is just that there’s less to report. I probably can’t prove that to you to your satisfaction, but I do work in the industry, so for the purposes of this dialogue I’ll just have to ask you to accept my word.

    The scale of cash reported by organizations is not an accurate measurement of their resources, or influence. Many members of ALEC are multimillionaires, and its participatory organizations are wealthy multinational corporations with deep pockets and multiple ways to funnel contributions. Individual working union members and Occupy Wall St. are just no comparison. These people and organizations are not actually drafting literal legislation and handing it to congresspeople, a la ALEC.

    As for a unified front between conservatives and liberals on this, I’m absolutely in your corner on that.

    Dr. J, I agree with you as well that the immature tone of some of this coverage is damaging, as it puts off potential support. I’d ask those who are put off to set aside their aesthetics and egos, a bit, and look at the damage that is occurring and what needs to be done. Thanks for your feedback.

  18. Another example:

    A product of the Public Safety and Elections Committee is still posted, and influencing conservative state legislators.

    On September 7, 2007, ALEC’s National Board Members gave final approval to a resolution, passed by its members, in support of the current Electoral College system used to elect the President of the United States.

    http://www.alec.org/docs/Electoral_College_PR.pdf

    ALEC’s First Vice Chairman, State Sen. Steve Faris (AR), introduced the resolution after his state came close to passing a bill that would have awarded the state’s Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote instead of the winner of the state’s popular vote. He said “I am proud ALEC has endorsed this resolution and is committed to oppose all national popular vote legislation.”

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in more than 3/4ths of the states that now are just ‘spectators’ and ignored after the primaries.

    When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls.

    Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    Despite ALEC’s opposition and influence, the bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes – 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    NationalPopularVote

    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via nationalpopularvoteinc

  19. Zeeuw, I agree we should look at the damage. I don’t recognize influence itself as damage, though, I think what matters is decisions.

    And here I see lots of murk. Fracking (to pick one issue) doesn’t look like a case of bad decisions triumphing over good, it looks like a case of people who want cheap energy against people who want safe drinking water. While most of us who want both aren’t sure what to do.

    Even for decisions I’d feel comfortable calling “bad” (in that they sell out the majority or the long term for the minority and the short term), I’m hesitant to agree that the best fix is restricting the influence of one class of petitioner in favor of some other class. Better, IMHO, to not put those decisions up for grabs to begin with.

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