Apr 17th, 2012 | By | Category: Featured Article

[NOTE: An update on the latest development in this important story is in the comments section at the end of this post.]

THE TRAGIC gunning down of an unarmed 17-year-old in Sanford, Florida, on February 26 opened a window on national policy questions far more profound than either Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman could have imagined.

Do we really have a democracy? You know, that “of, for and by the people” thing? Who’s governing us? Who’s writing the laws we live by? Who is the arbiter of justice? In a word, ALEC. And yes, you have good reason to fear him. But he’s an “it.”

Who elected ALEC? No one. ALEC is a self-appointed cabal of Republican state legislators who sit down with their deep-pocket allies from America’s boardrooms to write legislation that cements the power and protects the interests and profits of those corporate entities, all out of public view.

Until recently, almost no one knew ALEC existed. Those who did weren’t talking much, except among themselves. For four decades it’s been hiding, albeit in plain sight. Since February 26, however, ALEC seems to have been driven out of the shadows and now is cropping up everywhere, like dandelions. It turns out ALEC may well be the single most powerful agency in the nation — both economically and politically.

So, who is this ALEC? The simplest answer, that it is the strong arm of corporate America, doesn’t begin to do justice to what ALEC has been up to lo these many years while the rest of us weren’t paying attention (myself included).

For starters, ALEC is the real culprit behind the slaying of Trayvon Martin. Except for ALEC, Stand Your Ground may have never become law in Florida or the two dozen other states that have since copied all or parts of the law.

Yes, the law was the love-child of the National Rifle Association, but ALEC was the midwife at its birth. The NRA was the public promoter of the bill in 2005, but it was ALEC that wrote the law.

ALEC stands for American Legislative Exchange Council.  Innocuous sounding, isn’t it? But what it’s been up to is anything but innocuous. As Tom Hamburger reported recently in The Washington Post, “ALEC has had a significant impact in statehouses since it was founded in the 1970s by conservative activist Paul Weyrich.”

Here’s the problem: ALEC is what is known by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(3) organization, so named after the section of the code that sets down its rules. As such, it is tax exempt, and donations to it are deemed charity and therefore tax deductible. And there’s the hitch. A big hitch. Such organizations are forbidden by federal law from engaging in political campaigns or writing legislation. Here’s a quote direct from the IRS web site:

(I)t may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.

It was only after the media spotlight was aimed at Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law that ALEC’s role became more widely noticed and explored. It had drawn earlier attention by its promotion of voter photo-ID laws, which many consider voter-suppression laws, but that quickly faded. That was politics. This was murder.

Progressive groups like Common Cause and the Color of Change rallied with petition campaigns aimed at ALEC’s corporate funders. As a result, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s and Wendy’s all terminated their support for ALEC in the past few weeks. Other funders being targeted include Wal-Mart, AT&T, Pfizer (yes, the folks who gave us Viagra), Johnson & Johnson and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the drug industry’s trade group.

ALEC isn’t taking this lying down. It’s web site is pushing back against what it calls a “campaign of intimidation,” insisting in media releases that “The true motives behind the liberal attack machine … (are to impose on governments) confiscatory tax rates, innovation-stifling regulations, too many bureaucrats and … redistributionist policies.” In other words, big-government socialism.

Here’s how ALEC describes its own mission on the web site.

… (T)o advance the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty, through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector, the federal government, and general public… (and) to enlist state legislators from all parties and members of the private sector who share ALEC’s mission. (Emphasis added.)

Nonpartisan? All parties? It’s board of directors consists entirely of state legislators, all but one of whom are Republicans, typically from the GOP’s right fringe. The lone exception is Rhode Island Rep. Jon Brien, a Democrat who apparently earned his ALEC bona fides by not only supporting a voter photo-ID law in his state, but also introducing a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage, another item on ALEC’s to-do list. More on the ALEC agenda in a moment.

General Public? Well yes, if you consider corporations the “general; public.” After all, didn’t presidential wannabe Mitt Romney assure us that “corporations are people too”? More later about those corporations, too.

The Center for Media and Democracy has its own web site devoted to the group, ALEC Exposed. It is an entire on-line warehouse of information about ALEC — its moneybags, its members, its activities, even some 800 pieces of legislation ALEC has written and sent to state legislatures. It describes ALEC this way:

ALEC is not a lobby; it is not a front group. It is much more powerful than that. Through ALEC, behind closed doors, corporations hand state legislators the changes to the law they desire that directly benefit their bottom line. Along with legislators, corporations have membership in ALEC.

Corporations sit on all nine ALEC task forces and vote with legislators to approve “model” bills. They have their own corporate governing board which meets jointly with the legislative board. (ALEC contends corporate members do not vote on legislation, a moot point since they are clearly in the room with their checkbooks.)

Corporations fund almost all of ALEC’s operations. Participating legislators, overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, then bring those proposals home and introduce them in statehouses across the land as their own brilliant ideas and important public policy innovations — without disclosing that corporations crafted and voted on the bills.

ALEC boasts that it has over 1,000 of these bills introduced by legislative members every year, with one in every five of them enacted into law. ALEC describes itself as a “unique,” “unparalleled” and “unmatched” organization. We agree. It is as if a state legislature had been reconstituted, yet corporations had pushed the people out the door.

To understand the program you have to know the players. The Center’s web site discloses that more than 98% of ALEC’s funding comes from corporations, corporate trade groups and corporate foundations.

Each corporate member pays an annual fee of between $7,000 and $25,000 a year, and if a corporation participates in any of the nine task forces, additional fees apply, from $2,500 to $10,000 each year.

ALEC also receives direct grants from corporations, such as $1.4 million from ExxonMobil from 1998-2009. It has also received grants from some of the biggest foundations funded by corporate CEOs in the country, such as: the Koch family Charles G. Koch Foundation, the Koch-managed Claude R. Lambe Foundation, the Scaife family Allegheny Foundation, the Coors family Castle Rock Foundation, to name a few. Less than 2% of ALEC’s funding comes from “Membership Dues” of $50 per year paid by state legislators, a steeply discounted price that may run afoul of state gift bans.

You remember the Koch brothers, don’t you? They’re the oil billionaires whose Americans for Prosperity outfit funded the elections of people like union-busting Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Florida’s Rick Scott, among others. (I’ve written about their activities several times.) And Richard Mellon Scaife, the billionaire who financed the comic-opera of Bill Clinton’s impeachment?

Even though federal tax law explicitly forbids tax-exempt organizations like ALEC from “influenc(ing) legislation” — and one would assume that writing legislation would fall under that heading — ALEC has nine task forces assigned to do just that, draft “model bills” for legislators to take back home. (Why the IRS hasn’t moved on this is anybody’s guess. I’ll keep digging.)

One example of the unholy alliance at work: As recently as last July, the “Public Safety and Elections Task Force” membership listed on the ALEC web site included the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest private jailer with more than 60 prisons in 20 states. CCA had been an ALEC member for more than two decades. Guess what’s on the legislative menu for that task force: privatizing prisons. (ALEC says CCA is no longer a member.)

In addition to the task forces, corporate executives also sit on a “Private Enterprise” board. Its chair is W. Preston Baldwin of Centerpoint360, a lobbying firm that, according to its own web site, serves “at the intersection of business and government in order to enhance a client’s ability to shape the debate as well as manage the legislative and regulatory processes.”

When you hear the name Baldwin, think Big Tobacco. Baldwin was a vice president of United States Tobacco until it was sold in 2009 to Altria (formerly Phillip Morris). Some other members of the “Private Enterprise” board that Baldwin chairs also have interest in fighting tobacco regulations, including Altria and R. J. Reynolds.

Others on the board and their areas of “expertise” include Bayer, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Kraft Foods and PhRMA (food and drug regulation); State Farm (insurance regulation, health care reform); Koch Industries, ExxonMobile (energy, global climate change), and AT&T (telecommunications).

Still other heavy-rollers in bed with ALEC include Exxon Mobil, Blue Cross-Blue Shield, Boeing, Bank of America and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

ALEC also boasts a “Board of Scholars.” It has five members:

Arthur B. Laffer. The “father” of supply-side economics, the system George H.W. Bush famously declared “voodoo economics,” is the guy who gave his name to the “Laffer Curve,” which posits that income tax rates at 0% and 100% produce zero revenue, with everything between resulting in a rising, then falling bell curve of revenue. Laffer reportedly sketched it out on a restaurant napkin in the ‘70s, although the concept traces back not only to British economist John Maynard Keynes, that nemesis of today’s advocates of unrestrained free markets, but also to the classic 1377 philosophy of history, Muqaddimah, by the Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldun.

Stephen Moore. He sits on the Wall Street Journal editorial board, is a budget analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, a senior economics fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, and former president of the Club for Growth, which finances conservative candidates like U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey when he ran against moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania in 2004. Specter won narrowly and Toomey went on to take over the presidency of the Club for Growth, which has supported virtually every Tea Party candidate from Minnesota’s Rep. Bachmann to Nevada’s Sharon Angle.

Dr. Richard Vedder. An economics professor at The Ohio University, he has written extensively on labor issues, serves as an “adjunct scholar” at the conservative think tank, American Enterprise Institute. In November 2010, Vedder and Moore wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that every new dollar of new taxes leads to more than a dollar of new spending, to buttress right-wing arguments that taxes only “feed the beast” of big government.

Victor Schwartz. He is general counsel to the American Tort Reform Association, the corporate lawyers’ group dedicated to limiting plaintiffs’ ability to collect damages in medical malpractice cases, product liability cases, and non-economic and punitive damages in all lawsuits, long a major tenet of the right.

Bob Williams. The 1988 Republican candidate for governor of Washington State, he is founder and senior fellow of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (now simply Freedom Foundation), considered one of the state’s most influential conservative think tanks. It is currently engaged in an attempt to defeat legislation to protect minority voting rights.

Given these corporate sponsors and “scholars,” is it any wonder that ALEC looms large in the background of a host of right wing legislative initiatives? To cite but a few: Arizona’s anti-immigrant show-your-papers law and efforts to replicate it in other states; opposition to tobacco regulation; so-called “tort reform” to limit damages in lawsuits; privatizing schools, colleges and prisons; voter suppression laws, and restrictions on union activities.

These initiatives didn’t just spring up from discontented masses. In large part they were cooked up in the boardrooms of ALEC, off camera.

The final group of players essential to ALEC’s success, of course, is its board of directors, those 23 state legislators who take their marching orders from their corporate benefactors in the form of “model bills” to take home. Let me introduce you to some of these Republicans, along with a few nuggets I’ve been able to exhume from their recent pasts. A motley crew they make.

Chairman, Rep. Dave Frizzell, Indiana. He regularly scores 100% ratings from Right to Life, the National Federation of Independent Businessmen, the Chamber of Commerce, and other business and conservative groups, as well as an “A” from the NRA.

First Vice Chair, Rep. John Piscopo, Connecticut. A year ago he introduced Stand Your Ground legislation in the Connecticut legislature

Second Vice Chair, Rep. Linda Upmeyer, Iowa. She supported a constitutional amendment to prohibit mandatory licensing and registration of guns and was rewarded with an “A” from the NRA.

Sen. Curt Bramble, Utah. In 2011 he tried to gut the state’s open records law but an angry public defeated his effort. He apologized publicly.

Rep. Harold Brubaker, North Carolina. He is author of a constitutional amendment to limit the House speaker and Senate president pro-tem to four 2-year terms. He’s been in office 18 terms — 36 years.

Rep. Philip Gunn, Mississippi House Speaker. His Child Protection Act requires members of the clergy to report suspected child abuse or face criminal charges themselves. In 2011, before the measure became law, Gunn, a Baptist elder, heard a minister confess to sex abuse of boys. Not only did he not report it, one account states he advised other elders not to and attempted to quiet people “who did the right thing in this mess.”

Rep. Joe Harrison, Louisiana. He opposed an anti-bullying bill, then introduced one to require social agencies and police to verify citizenship of all aid applicants and arrested persons, the Arizona approach on steroids. It was withdrawn in the face of law enforcement opposition.

Rep. Bill Howell, Virginia House Speaker. At a recent news conference, he attacked a ProgressVA report about ALEC’s influence on the state legislature (he used to be ALEC’s board chair). Anna Scholl, ProgressVA’s executive director, challenged his remarks based on more than 60 ALEC bills introduced by Virginia Republicans. Howell’s retort: “I guess I’m not speaking in little enough words for you to understand.” (A public outcry at this condescending insult drove him to apologize.)

Sen. William Seitz, Ohio. After he voted against legislation to restrict public employees’ bargaining rights, he was stripped of his chairmanship of the Government Oversight Committee by the Senate President, his roommate. He then moved out of their shared apartment, saying he no longer could afford it.

Rep. Fred Steen II, North Carolina. Now running for Congress, his web site lists his platform, including  opposition to gay marriage, repeal of Obamacare, term limits, and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which states that the killing of a pregnant woman constitutes double murder because “the unborn child is the cornerstone of our democracy and our republic.”

Rep. Curry Todd, Tennessee. Todd has got to be one of the most curious members of ALEC’s governing board. He announced April 3 that he has first-stage Waldenström macroglobulinemia, a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma for which there’s no known cure. He’s running for reelection anyway, even though:

Last October he was arrested for drunk driving with a loaded pistol at his side. Ironically, two years earlier he had sponsored a law to allow people to bring handguns into bars and restaurants, as long as they didn’t drink any booze. The bill passed despite law enforcement opposition, and the governor’s veto was over-ridden. A judge declared the law unconstitutionally vague, but then the legislature passed a new version last year.

Todd also attracted attention last year when he said at a hearing that illegal immigrants can “go out there like rats and multiply,” this after he heard that federal law requires prenatal care for women regardless of their citizenship status because all children born in the U.S. are citizens.

These are the clowns that corporate America sends out to do its bidding in our state legislatures? These are the lackeys who gather in the ALEC boardroom with their corporate sugar-daddies to craft “model bills” like Stand Your Ground and Papers, Please?

Do you think any legitimate advocates for the people — not the corporations, but real people — would be welcomed in that board room? If they were, it would be show-and-tell tokenism.

So it was that Stand Your Ground found its way into Florida’s law books, just one of the thousand or more pieces of legislation that ALEC proudly claims as its progeny.

The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne Jr. explained what happened next:

Stand Your Ground laws spread through legislatures like a virus. By (New York Mayor Michael) Bloomberg’s count, they are now on the books in 25 states. These laws didn’t arise in response to broad, spontaneous popular demand. As both The Washington Post and New York Times reported…, the idea came from on high, courtesy of the NRA, which worked closely with a right-wing group called the American Legislative Exchange Council.

“It was the NRA taking a stealthy fight to the states,” Mark Glaze, the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, told me in an interview, “and 25 flowers bloomed.”

Unfortunately, this is a much bigger story than Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence, or even the tragic slaying of Trayvon Martin.

It is the story of the seizure of control of our democracy by corporate America slowly but surely across the decades, the same corporations the Supreme Court unleashed to run rampant across America’s political landscape barely two years ago.

It’s now hard to ignore the fact that a conspiratorial cartel of corporate giants has joined hands with their handpicked state legislators to dictate our future. If that isn’t enough to rally Americans to the cause of restoring the proper role of representative government, I don’t know what is.

Can they be stopped? They must be if our democracy is to survive the train wreck these oligarchs are driving us toward. Sunlight might prove to be the best disinfectant of what has thrived in the shadows since the 1970s.

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  1. UPDATE: It appears that sunshine is having the desired disinfectant effect. Soon after the above was posted, chairman Rep. Frizzell of Indiana said in a statement that ALEC was “eliminating the Public Safety and Elections task force that dealt with non-economic issues, and reinvesting these resources in the task forces that focus on the economy.” (My commentary had nothing to do with this development. Earlier and mounting media attention had everything to do with it.)

    Common Cause reacted immediately. “The American public has wised up to ALEC’s misguided and secretive attempts to co-opt state legislators for corporate profit,” said its president, Bob Edgar. “In folding its Public Safety and Elections Task Force, ALEC is abandoning under pressure the most controversial part of its agenda; that’s an important victory for the American public.”

    The civil rights group Color of Change had an even sharper reaction: “To simply say they are stopping non-economic work doesn’t guarantee that ALEC will not continue to push laws that endanger African Americans and trample our voting rights. Shutting down one task force does not provide justice to the millions of Americans whose lives are impacted by these dangerous and discriminatory laws courtesy of ALEC and its corporate backers.”

    Stay tuned.

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