What is ALEC, and why have you never heard of it?
Those are the questions many people are asking about the American Legislative Exchange Council, possibly the most powerful and most secretive conservative pressure group in the U.S. ALEC managed to hide while it pushed bills about issues such as safety deregulation, voter ID, and anti-immigrant legislation. Now the group is under a spotlight as progressive groups have begun to expose its machinations, and it is withering under public scrutiny. Matt Glazer, executive director of nonprofit Progress Texas, said, "They've spent about three decades being in the background with no one paying attention. It's funny how fungus can grow in the dark cold of night."
Founded in 1973 by Nixon and Reagan loyalists, the group describes itself as a "think-tank for state-based public policy issues and potential solutions." Critics argue it is something far more insidious, a one-stop legislation shop providing a direct conduit between corporations and lawmakers. The process is alarming in its elegance: ALEC drafts bills, creates talking points, even drafts amendments, then hands them to lawmakers in multiple state legislatures. That's why nearly identical, extremely conservative bills like mandatory sonograms are turning up in state after state – the lawmakers are all working from the same playbook. Glazer said, "Corporations have said flat-out that they joined this organization because they could get laws on the books in state legislatures that benefit them."
The Faustian pact reached its nadir after the tea party dominated the 2010 elections. As Glazer sees it: "There's this group of people [legislators] who have never been taught to govern. They just got swept in, and in an absence of any idea how to govern, there's this organization that'll write the bills for you, will lobby your bills for you, do all the work for you. Why wouldn't you be attracted to that?"
ALEC has been well-known to political insiders for decades, but received broader exposure last year when the Center for Media and Democracy launched ALEC Exposed (www.alecexposed.org). A whistle-blower handed the center 800 "model bills" – the corporate-authored draft laws it hands to legislators. Philip Martin, research and policy director for Progress Texas, said the center "built a wiki page, put all those bills online, and empowered people to start taking a closer look at where the bills that passed in their states are really coming from."
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Color of Change, and other groups quickly joined the crusade, and organized boycotts against ALEC members. Some global brands like Procter & Gamble, Yum!, Wendy's, and Mars revoked their membership. Coca-Cola publicly declared that the company was only interested in cutting back on food and business regulation, not unrelated issues like voter ID; McDonald's claimed that its departure was solely a business decision. The most prominent recent exit was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – although not an actual member, in November 2011 it had pledged $376,635 to ALEC for educational campaigning (shorthand for pushing pro-charter school legislation). After the PCCC launched a petition and phone protest campaign, the foundation committed to no further ALEC grants. Glazer said: "This agenda is not what they were promised. They were looking for education avenues. They were looking for organizations that were going to go fight for fixing problems, not create new social problems."
It's not just businesses that are defecting: Austin Democratic State Reps. Dawnna Dukes and Eddie Rodriguez have joined a roster of lawmakers severing ties. Dukes said she had been a member "on and off" since joining the Legislature in 1995, but that the final straw came when she found that her name had been put forward for an ALEC committee position. Describing it as "insulting" that she was being used to add a bipartisan veneer to an openly hyper-partisan, hyper-right-wing organization, she said sacrificing her $100 membership "was the least I could do."
But with its conservative history, why would any Texas Democrat join ALEC in the first place? Because the Legislature pays for lawmakers to join a handful of "nonpartisan" legislative groups, but only those on an extremely short list – a list that includes ALEC. Before the current campaign, half of all Texas lawmakers – Democrat and Republican – were ALEC members. Rodriguez said he joined because it was the only way to get an inside view. "I've always thought it was important to know your enemy," he said, so he used his membership to get into ALEC's 38th Annual Conference, held last year in New Orleans. "It was pretty much what I expected it to be," he said – a slick operation designed to disseminate the model bills. He says ALEC "is a real sign of how you have an organized effort to move the country to a far-right agenda."
With ALEC's social conservative agenda exposed, corporate backers can no longer feign ignorance. Both Dukes and Rodriguez pointed to ALEC's championing of the now notorious "Stand Your Ground" law, and its role in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, as a turning point. Glazer said: "I don't blame anyone who was a member before 2009, because no one was fully aware what was going on, and it seemed like another legislative organization. It wasn't until 2010 that we started seeing all this really heinous stuff."
The anti-ALEC campaign is far from over. Color of Change now has AT&T in its sights, and over the summer Progress Texas will be releasing several reports into ALEC's agenda and influence in Texas. Glazer said, "Instead of a Legislature that focuses on the deficit and education and health care, we have a Legislature that takes bills that have been drafted by corporations and conservative lobbyists."
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