[For the 21 May 12 Old Mole, posted 5/20/2012]
We all know money in politics is a problem. As Marx noted, "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." One of the strongest links between capital and the state came to greater public visibility last year when a trove of documents was leaked from the archive of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC; the Center for Media and Democracy has made those documents and a great deal of related information available on the website alec exposed dot org.
On its own website, ALEC describes itself as "a think-tank for state-based public policy issues and potential solutions" and says it works "to advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public." ALEC was founded in 1973 by a group of conservative activists including Paul Weyrich (who also cofounded the Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority) and former Illinois Republican Congressman Henry Hyde (best known for the 1976 Hyde amendment banning the use of Medicaid funds for abortion, which led to the deaths of Rosaura Jimenez and who knows how many other women).
Today, ALEC is increasingly well known as a "bill mill," offering model legislation for state lawmakers to introduce and sponsor, though it's not officially a lobbying group. Instead, it's organized as a 501 (c) (3) organization, and is thus exempt from paying taxes, and donations made to it are tax-exempt as charitable contributions.
Most of ALEC's members are state legislators, about 2000 of whom pay membership dues of fifty dollars per year, which accounts for only about two percent of ALEC's funding. In exchange for their dues, legislators can get "scholarships" that provide all-expenses-paid trips to the organization's annual conferences and task force meetings, held in luxury-spa hotels in warm sunny climates. What scholarships don't cover will often be refunded by states, and thus, funded by taxpayers.
But 98% of ALEC's funding comes from their 300 or so corporate and foundation members—including AT&T, ExxonMobil, DowChemical, Pfizer pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, Koch Industries, Amazon.com, eBay, the National Rifle Association, the National Right to Life Committee, and many many others. Their membership fees start at seven thousand dollars and go up to the tens of thousands per year. They pay several more thousands to join one of ALEC's task forces. Private-sector members, as ALEC calls them, also give direct grants, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, all of it tax deductible. In return, they get to write laws that work in their interests, which legislators then take back to their states and try to pass. By ALEC's own account, its members introduce about 1,000 ALEC bills each legislative session, and manage to pass about 200 of them a year.
For instance, last year, the Nation magazine reports, GOP governors or legislatures introduced at least 500 ALEC-inspired antilabor laws, including laws to restrict the scope of collective bargaining and to pre-empt local living-wage or other labor standards. After Atlanta, Georgia, passed a law saying that it will only use its taxpayer money to hire contractors who pay living wages, the state legislature passed an ALEC bill to ban the city from being able to control its own wage limits.
ALEC also works on anti-environment legislation, blocking laws on carbon pricing, stripping targets for renewable energy, turning over public lands to states and potentially opening them up to extractive industries, watering down public disclosure about chemicals associated with fracking, and preventing the regulation of toxic coal ash.
And ALEC is pursuing tort reform, laws that make it harder to sue corporations, so you won't have any recourse after you've been poisoned by the toxins in your environment or in the products you've bought.
While these bills are in the financial interest of a wide range of corporations, other ALEC projects are more specifically targeted. For instance, ALEC has been working hard on dismantling public education, as Julie Underwood reported last July in the Nation. ALEC supporters have included the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and corporations providing education services, such as Scantron, Inc., Sylvan Learning, and the Connections Academy. ALEC has been working to privatize education through charters, vouchers, watering down teacher certification, breaking teacher unions, increasing testing, discrediting public schools, and eroding local control.
There are also a number of prison-related corporations involved in ALEC, including the Corrections Corporation of America, Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections), American Bail Coalition, and Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE), a privately held corporation that hires out cheap prison labor at wages that undercut even the costs of manufacture in China. ALEC helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today, like mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, “three strikes” laws, and, perhaps most famously, Arizona's SB 1070, the notorious immigration law designed to keep CCA prisons flush with immigrant detainees.
Further, ALEC was, famously, behind stand-your-ground laws like the one in Florida that provided the rationalization for George Zimmerman's fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin last year. In the wake of public outcry after that incident, and the increasing scrutiny and criticism of ALEC, a number of corporations have dropped their memberships—including Mars candy (the maker of Skittles), Coca-Cola, Kraft, Pepsi, McDonald's, Wendy's, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Proctor & Gamble. ALEC, in turn, announced that it was disbanding its task force on Public Safety and Elections. But supporters of dangerous gun laws and voter suppression need not fear. ALEC intends to merely shift that work elsewhere within the organization. Moreover, other conservative groups are ready to pick up ALEC's slack. After ALEC's announcement about disbanding their elections task force, the National Center For Public Policy Research announced it would be forming a "Voter Identification Task Force."
So, we see that ALEC is hardly the only group promoting the interests of right wing conservatism and corporate capitalism, even if it has been one of the busiest and most successful. Truthout dot org is currently publishing a series of articles exposing some of the "Other ALECs"—the other taxpayer-subsidized stealth lobbyists and "bill mills," including the Council of State Governments, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation.
In general, Capital is likely to continue to find ways to unduly influence the bourgeois state until we collectively move beyond capitalism.
In the meantime, though, we can continue fighting back. Common Cause has filed a Whistleblower complaint against ALEC with the Internal Revenue Service, charging ALEC with misuse of charity laws, massive underreporting of lobbying, and obtaining improper tax breaks for corporate funders at taxpayer expense. You can sign on in support of that complaint at the common cause website. There are also a number of online petitions and letters demanding that corporations and legislators disassociate themselves from ALEC, including a petition to Oregon legislators demanding that those who are currently associates of ALEC resign from the group and refuse to cosponsor ALEC model bills. In addition, the Portland Action Lab is forming an affinity group to work on these issues.