ALEC Under Attack: Activism Matters

On July 29th, Mike Pence, the Republican VP candidate and Indiana Governor, delivered a keynote lunchtime address to the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) annual conclave in – where else – Indianapolis, IN.  ALEC is the influential conservative organization whose lobbyists draft model rightwing and free-market legislation that is promoted by sympathetic state legislators across the country.

As expected, Pence championed Trump’s candidacy:

I would say to all of you, for the sake of the rule of law, for the sake of the sanctity of life, for the sake of our Second Amendment and all of our God-given liberties, we must assure the next president making appointments to the Supreme Court of the United States of America is President Donald Trump.

Pence proclaimed that a Trump administration would promote “empowering states with resources and flexibility.”  He argued, “the states created the federal government, the federal government didn’t create the states.”  In true conservative spirit, he invoked former President Ronald Reagan and even quoted from a Robert Frost poem, telling those gathered that conservative leadership required them to take “the road less traveled.”

As the local IndyStar noted, “Pence’s speech, though, was light on references to Trump’s policies and heavy on ALEC’s bread and butter: state government.”  Pence joked that he was “for ALEC before it was cool.”

Ever upbeat, Pence failed to mention that an increasing number of the ALEC corporate members are fleeing the organization.  SourceWatch reports, “As of December 2015, at least 108 corporations and 19 non-profits — for a total of 127 private sector members — have publicly announced that they cut ties with the group.”  Among those who’ve jumped ship are Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kraft, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft.  Among the most recent companies that have quit ALEC are Expedia, Ford and AARP.

AAPR, the senior-citizen advocacy group and insurance company, briefly joined ALEC and was a named co-sponsor of the luncheon that Pence spoke at.  However, prior to the luncheon, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) revealed the link between the two groups and this led to a firestorm of protest.  AARP members, unions, progressive groups and the media raised questions about the alliance.  It culminated, on August 5th, with AAPP quitting ALEC.

AAPR offered no explanation as to why it joined ALEC, but one can guess. Those who run the “AARP-branded products and services” subsidiaries, including its insurance operations, were likely behind the decision.  According to the group’s 2015 annual report, in 2014, it had 37 million members and an annual budget of $1 billion and received “$799.3 million of royalty revenue” in 2014 from the subsidiaries, “a year-over-year growth of $36.0 million, or 4.7 percent.”  Money corrupts, even among the apparently well intentioned.

Amidst the firestorm, AARP announced on its Facebook site, “After hearing from many of you, we’ve decided not to renew our membership to ALEC.”  It then went on to declare: “We would never work against the interests of older Americans and our engagement with ALEC was NOT an endorsement of the organization’s policies, but an opportunity to engage with state legislators and advance our members’ priorities.”  Sure.  Political shaming works.


* * *

ALEC was founded in 1973 by arch-reactionary Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and promotes itself as a “nonpartisan individual membership organization of state legislators that favors federalism and conservative public policy solutions.”  It claims to “advance the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty ….”

Whether its claims are making Jefferson spin in his grave is an open question; nevertheless, ALEC’s campaign is clear.  It seeks to destroy unions, defeat climate regulation and further shift wealth to the 1 percent.  Most pecular with regard to AARP’s very short membership, ALEC has lobbied for pharmaceutical companies and promoted programs to cut government spending on programs that benefit seniors, notably Social Securety and the Affordable Care Act.

ALEC is, formally, a non-profit group that drafts model legislation.  It has an estimated membership exceeding 2,400 state legislators from both political parties, but most are conservative Republicans.  It regularly invites members to all-expense paid private gatherings with corporate executives and lobbyists where they devise model legislation to fulfill their political agenda.  These legislators, in turn, return to their home states and promote the legislation at state houses throughout the country.  Many of their initiatives have been enacted.

ALEC does not report the number of its model bills that state legislations adopt in one form or another.  Fortune reported that during the 2009 legislative session, ALEC developed 826 state bills and 115 of them were made into law.  A 2013 study by the Brookings Institute analyzed a 169 ALEC “model bills” identified by SourceWatch and reported the following:

During the 2011-2012 legislative session, 132 bills based on ALEC models were introduced in the states.  Democrats sponsored nearly 10% of those bills, while Republicans sponsored more than 90%.  … Of those legislators who sponsore ALEC model legislation, 57% can be explicitly connected to ALEC.  However, that does not necessarily preclude the other legislators from having ALEC ties; ALEC does not discuss the names of their legislative members, so this figure is based primary on information from leaked documents.

According to Edwin Bender, executive director, National Institute on Money in State Politics, “Corporations can implement their agendas very effectively using ALEC.”

* * *

Does the AAPR’s decision to quit ALEC represent anything more than a shrewd business decision by a relatively “liberal” non-profit group catering to seniors?  It’s too early to tell.

Over the last few years, groups like CMD, Color of Change and Common Cause have led the campaign against ALEC, effectively shaming a growing number of for-profit companies and non-profit groups into quitting the organization.  Every couple of years, a social crisis focuses national attention on ALEC, revealing how its deceptive legislative practices contributed to the crisis.  Will the 2016 election set-off another round of major corporations quitting ALEC?  Time will tell.

In 2012, in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Color of Change launched a campaign exposing ALEC’s role in the adoption of “stand-your-ground” gun laws in Florida and other states.  Public outrage led to the defection of more than 60 companies from ALEC sponsorship, including Amazon, Apple, Coca-Cola, General Electric and McDonalds along with Blue Cross/Blue Shield and the Gates Foundation.

Two years later, the growing concern over climate change led high-tech companies Ebay, Expedia, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Yelp to jump ship from ALEC.  In 2015, environmental concerns pushed energy-industry giants, Royal Dutch Shell and BP, as well as the American Electric Power and the Canadian National Railway to quit ALEC.  This year, so far it’s been a trickle of companies breaking with ALEC, including AAPR and Ford.

At this year’s ALEC annual meeting, VP candidate Pence proudly declared that he was “for ALEC before it was cool.”  Pence’s keynote address might be an indicator of the organization’s possible role in a Trump administration.  If Trump should win in November, an ALEC insider, Wendell Cox, is on the short list for Secretary of Transportation, a Cabinet position.  He serves as ALEC’s director of public policy and is a fellow at Heritage Foundation and the Heartland Institute, conservative think-tanks.  He previously served on Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.

The 2016 election might be a replay of the 2010 off-year election, but this time with the more “liberal” candidates victorious.  It might see “progressive” Democrats, “moderate” Republicans and third-party insurgents reshaping the legislative landscape.  Such a realignment of political power might lead to many more companies quitting ALEC.  One can hope.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion: How What Was Taboo in 1950s New York Became America’s New Normal (Carrel, 2016).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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