The most powerful lobby you've never heard of
by Nick Penniman
The American Prospect magazine, July 2002
Earth Day, conservatives have been known to complain, always
brings out the weirdos. This year's celebration was no exception.
"Absent from the debate [on global warming] is the discussion
of human ingenuity and our ability to adapt to our environment;
when the temperature increases, we turn on the air conditioner,"
ran one line of thinking that went out over the fax lines in late
April. "More people die from cold temperatures than heat:
'... global warming could actually save lives."'
Thus spake ALEC, a driven 29-year-old who is quite conservative
and rather rich. With friends in high places, ALEC throws big
parties, likes to get around, and is full of ideas. Never heard
of the American Legislative Exchange Council? That's just the
way ALEC likes it. As obscure as it is influential, the council
bills itself as the "nation's largest bipartisan, individual
membership association of state legislators." The press,
too, tends to describe the organization in those terms. But in
point of fact, ALEC represents corporate interests, and it has
an impressive stake in a high-stakes game. This year, approximately
150,000 bills will be considered by the 50 state legislatures,
and about 25 percent of them will become law- more than 75 times
the number enacted by Congress. Collectively, these laws will
profoundly affect the lives of tens of millions of Americans.
Special-interest groups have always known this and are already
heavily invested in state politics. According to a new report
by the Center for Public Integrity, the number of state lobbyists
dwarfs the number of state legislators six-to-one. What's more,
these lobbyists spent more than $565 million in 2000 alone. So
it should be no surprise that big corporations, which have traditionally
plowed their money and muscle into the federal arena, have increasingly
realized that they too must play ball at the state level. ALEC
is their pinch hitter.
How does ALEC work? The council connects corporations to state
legislatures via conferences and forums. Under the aegis of "legislative
exchange," these gatherings allow corporations access and
influence for which they'd otherwise be publicly scrutinized.
ALEC also produces reams of model legislation-drafts that meet
the needs of ALEC's corporate allies and that legislators can
send to their statehouse floors, with or without amendment.
The organization's reach is impressive: More than one-third
of state legislators are ALEC members, and about 100 hold senior
leadership positions. Nine sitting governors and more than 80
members of Congress either pay dues or are alumni, including Republicans
Dennis Hastert of Illinois, Tom DeLay of Texas, and Don Nickles
of Oklahoma. ALEC doesn't publicly release its membership list
but, according to spokesman Bob Adams, about 65 percent of its
members are Republicans and 35 percent Democrats. ALEC's $6 million
budget-which pays for 30 staffers in prime Washington office space-is
mostly provided by large corporations (Enron included) and right-wing
foundations, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the John
M. Olin Foundation among them.
ALEC specializes in nothing if not the intertwining of private
and public power: Each of its issue-based "task forces"
is cochaired by a "public-sector chair" (a state legislator)
and a "private-sector chair" (a corporate executive);
similarly, the council has a "national board" of elected
officials and a "private enterprise board" of business
leaders. But the organization's real ingenuity is its exploitation
of a deep vulnerability in the nation's political system: State
legislatures tend to function only part time. Only seven states
have full-time state legislatures; in six states the legislature
convenes just every other year; and in 38 states, legislators
have no paid staff.
If you're a politician looking to sponsor a bill, but your
time and resources are limited and you only meet with your colleagues
once every few months, ALEC provides one-stop shopping. As Health
and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said of his days attending
ALEC conferences in the 1970s,' 'Myself, I always loved going
to these meetings because I always found new ideas and then I'd
take them back to Wisconsin, disguise them a little bit, and declare
that it's mine." Legislators who might otherwise gain little
or no national distinction are able to do so within ALEC. It connects
them to VIPs and strokes their egos by handing out "Legislator
of the Year" awards.
ALEC didn't begin life as a corporate-interest group. Launched
in 1973 by conservative activists and politicians such as Paul
Weyrich, Jesse Helms, Jack Kemp, and Henry Hyde, ALEC began as
an organ of the New Right. Liberal activists, its founders believed,
had built a network of idea mills at the state level; conservatives
had to do the same. ("I always look at what the enemy is
doing," Weyrich said at the time, "and if they're winning,
copy it.") ALEC was- and, according to its literature, still
is-to be guided by Jeffersonian principles of devolution. For
its first two decades, however, social issues such as abortion
dominated most of its work. It wasn't until the 1990s that ALEC
was almost entirely transformed into a corporate ramrod.
Today, however, ALEC channels most of its firepower into the
antiregulatory, anti-environmental fight. There's its model Economic
Liberty Resolution, which calls for the creation of a "Joint
Legislative Committee on Economic Freedom for the purpose of identifying
legal and regulatory barriers to private investment and entrepreneurship,
and proposing legislation on such other actions as may be necessary
to remove such barriers." The Prevailing Wage Repeal Act
proposes the elimination of "all laws which require administratively
determined employee compensation rates, including wages, salaries
and benefits." Another model bill would "oppose the
federal government's setting aside of funds in order to acquire
more land." And a measure deceptively titled the Civil Rights
Act would void "all set-aside contracts and affirmative action
programs" targeted at "any individual or group on the
basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin."
Perhaps the McDonald's Corporation's Ed Conklin, who is private-sector
chair of the Commerce and Economic Development Task Force, has
convinced a few legislators of the merits of the Workplace Responsibility
Act, which "requires that employees show that their drug
and alcohol use did not cause a workplace accident"-as opposed
to the typical requirement, which ALEC deems an "impossible
burden," that employers prove such use did cause an accident.
(That, after all, assumes the employee innocent until proven guilty.)
ALEC may be nominally devoted to Jeffersonian devolution,
but principle apparently has its limits. In its analysis of the
"living-wage" laws, for instance, ALEC declares that
"state legislatures need the power to preempt local governments
from enacting their own wage laws." And ALEC's model Kyoto
Climate Change Protocol Act "prohibits the proposal or promulgation
of state regulations intended to reduce emissions of greenhouse
gases" prior to U.S. ratification of Kyoto. So much for states'
These are not just debating points whose inconsistencies might
be of passing interest. Rather, a good number of ALEC's deeply
flawed "models" are becoming law. ALEC claims that state
assemblies enacted more than 450 pieces of its "model legislation"
in the 1999 and 2000 legislative sessions. And as the pace of
state legislating continues to quicken, so too will legislators'
needs for precooked bills. "State battles are more difficult
to fight but in a way more essential," asserts Andy Gussert,
national director of the State Environmental Resource Center.
"Major activity at the state level has significantly increased
in the last 1o to 15 years."
Success does have a tendency to go to one's head, and ALEC's
case is no exception. In the last year or so, the organization
has involved itself far more aggressively in partisan politics.
Last September, ALEC's executive director, Duane Parde, sent letters
to members of North Carolina's state legislature urging them not
to raise taxes. "The people of North Carolina are already
overtaxed," Parde wrote. "In this time of economic uncertainty,
reason and justice demand that you not add to the people's burden."
In May, Parde blasted Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy and Tom
Daschle for moving too slowly on President George W. Bush's judicial
nominees. And in its strangest spasm of all, ALEC weighed in on
the presidential election showdown in Florida. "ALEC Offers
'Hats Off' to Florida's Courageous State Legislature," the
press release trumpeted after that state body slid its :5 electoral
college votes into Bush's column.
Is this kind of activity legitimate for a nonprofit organization
that didn't check the lobbying clause on its most recent tax forms?
It's hard to say, because almost all of what ALEC does is craft
and promote legislation and provide spaces for corporations to
press political flesh. Some nonprofits, if they elect to do so,
can spend a portion of their resources backing and attacking legislation.
ALEC claims it doesn't-but then what was
Parde doing attacking a tax-increase bill in North Carolina?
Although ALEC seems due for closer scrutiny by the Internal Revenue
Service (as well as state ethics boards), lobbying disclosure
laws dramatically vary at the state level, and it's incumbent
on politicians themselves to classify gifts and expenses. It's
impossible to generalize whether or not ALEC members do so appropriately.
But one thing's for certain: If the politicians who attend ALEC
conferences couldn't travel to them on public dollars-that is,
if its conferences and forums were considered lobbying events-key
ALEC functions would be wiped out. As someone familiar with the
organization said, "The totality of what they do is lobby.
It's a self-sustaining con game."
ALEC denies the charge. "We don't lobby," Adams
insists. "We don't introduce legislation at the state level.
We just don't do that. We educate people and inform ideas....
We are a tool for state legislators."
One wonders who the tools really are in ALEC's questionable
NICK PENNIMAN is an associate editor of the Prospect and the
director of the Policy Action Network.