Outing ALEC

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' rights.

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 game.


NICK PENNIMAN is an associate editor of the Prospect and the director of the Policy Action Network.

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