ALEC Friend or Foe to American democracy?

Across America, states are experiencing drastic budget reductions.  The need to decrease payroll costs limits the number of staff members available to assist lawmakers with the diverse complexity involved in the enormous task of writing state legislation.  Legislatures mitigate this circumstance by soliciting outside resources for research support. Various interest groups grew from this specialized need for information gathering, they became expert sources pertaining to the needs identified about a particular issue or industry. Typically, these organizations are non-profits and claim nonpartisanship to appeal to the greatest amount of donors and clients.  Groups who remain nonpartisan preserve its reputation as credible information source without a pre-determined political agenda. Even so, the nature of an individual interest group’s work is such that it may show a certain political slant that endears them to certain lawmakers. Naturally, a lawmaker chooses to align with groups representing his or her political ideology. The function of an interest organization is to supply background information about their topic, possibly by attending meetings, and providing talking points that a legislator can utilize to speak to the press if needed.  The support of credible interest groups bolsters support from the public for the legislation, when the system works as intended it allows the system of democracy to run efficiently.

It is customary for interest groups to send their own press releases out to media outlets in support of the lawmaker and the bill they are working on together.  When the public sees the same information, coming from multiple sources it lends further validation of that point of view.  There are two ways to go about this process. One is a fact-based release, it provides an opportunity to learn about an issue and it’s solution.  The other is to release selective fact telling to the media; it calls the integrity of the information, and those who released it into question. This misleads and confuses citizens because the information is coming from multiple “expert” sources. This technique builds a storyline into the public consciousness with the use of propaganda and tampers with democracy. Whichever technique is used the reward is the same. It is the opportunity to have hands-on time with the bill in order to construct a “model” bill.  A model bill is a perfect bill from the interest group’s point of view.  Yet, if legislators are manipulating the information and interest groups act as an assist to pass what would otherwise be an unpopular bill, this too is tampering with the democratic process.

With the knowledge that state legislators are understaffed and looking to interact with industry experts, it is not difficult to see how state legislators would be enticed by the opportunity to meet with several high-power industry representatives who specialize in the issues of the day.  Influential State level Representatives and Senators gain access to a one-stop-shop meeting with experts about the types of legislation that could create jobs and improve their state’s economy. Hence, when a group like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) offers likeminded lawmakers a family getaway to a glamorous location like Scottsdale, Arizona to discuss legislative ideas, it is no wonder that they are eager to join in.  Conservative Republicans find ALEC appealing because they see ALEC’s product as tailor-made for their political interests.

The mission statement from the organization’s website, states that ALEC is “A nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers who shared a common belief in limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty.” ALEC files with the IRS as a 501 (c) 3 charity, a status called into question recently that may cause the organization to undergo severe penalties if misuse of this tax status is determined.  Both the tax status and mission statement omits the corporate side of the organization. It says nothing to imply corporate members spend up to $230,000 per year on membership fees and for the opportunity to sit on a task force with influential state lawmakers. During these meetings, corporate representatives collaborate by providing the elected taskforce officials, boilerplate bills written by lawyers hired by the corporation or lobbying group. (Newmyer) There are no citizens nor citizens groups from the effected states represented on these taskforces. Therefore, there is no process to get feedback from those affected by the law. That is not democracy.  During the following legislative session ALEC members introduce over 1,000, “model bills” nationally, and about 17% of the time, these bills pass. Corporate members view this percentage to be an impressive return on investment. Historically, discreet about their activities, the actions of ALEC members to stifle opposition challenges to ALEC sponsored bills is difficult to hide entirely.  The fact that this happens frequently is a detriment to the democratic process when limited, if any opposition is entertained to point out potential weakness in the bill’s language. This is particularly troublesome when such actions have unintended negative consequences on the communities they effect.  ALEC has a process to track the bills and check on its process. The organization leverages influence by implementing labeling process sending updates to members about what the organization deems “good bills” or “problematic bills.” This can result in legislative members, which are simultaneously ALEC members, taking action favorable to ALEC’s point of view.  In 2010, there were 2,000 state lawmakers nationally that were simultaneously active ALEC members.  (McIntire)

The American Legislative Exchange Council came under intense public scrutiny recently. Predominantly with its relationship to the “Stand Your Ground,” law.  This is a law created mainly by the National Rifle Association during an ALEC convention. ALEC legislative members including those from the state of Florida, and twenty other states adopted the bill into law. The subsequent result of this law was the death of teenager Trayvon Martin. An overzealous Neighborhood Watch participant, George Zimmerman, chose to pursue Martin. A struggle ensued at which time Zimmerman pulled a gun and fatally shot Martin in the chest. The case is currently at the pre-trial stage, yet there is a strong chance that Zimmerman will experience limited consequences for his actions because of the “Stand Your Ground” Law, which allows the use of lethal force on another individual, deemed self-defense if he feels there is a threat to his life—even if it is an unsubstantiated threat. (Krugman)  The ambiguity of this controversial law brought heated attention to ALEC and inspired campaigns to place pressure on ALEC’s corporate members to quit. It calls into question the manner in which laws such as these get do pass recommendation, with little or no debate by opposition. Perhaps if they had focused attention to correct that, which made the “Stand Your Ground,” Law such a poorly written piece of legislation. It would prevent this type of tragedy.

Furthermore, this is not the first time ALEC was associated with a hotly contested or controversial law. Closer to my home, Arizona’s SB1070 was created at an ALEC convention in cooperation with a private prison lobby.  (Sullivan) This bill was then shepherded through the Arizona Legislature by Russell K. Pearce.

Legislators are starting to feel the consequential sting associated with pursuing ALEC goals without the support of the people they represent. In the case of Russell Pearce, he later faced and lost a recall election due in large part because of his involvement with the SB1070 bill. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin finds himself facing recall, after he pushed through a Koch Industries bill obtained at an ALEC convention to dismantle collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin state employees. The negative impact of these bills act as a catalyst for such groups as ALEC Exposed, ALEC Watch and a project for Common Cause, a watchdog group whose mission it is to hold those in power accountable for their actions. Many of these groups have created campaigns to place pressure on ALEC participants. According to an article by New York Times writer Mike McIntire, Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist, Kraft Foods, Intuit, and Coca-Cola have recently left ALEC and there are more to follow, because of the backlash resulting from the negative attention brought on by this bill.

ALEC is a vessel for a process, though the actions of this group raise concern, the process the group represents is alarming. It casts a shadow of doubt on the democratic process of the United States. For when an exclusive group of individuals holds a large percentage of the country’s wealth and resources in addition to having such personal access to lawmakers the spirit of democracy suffers.  It is virtually impossible for middle-class voters to have an equal voice when speaking with their legislator experiencing these political conditions.  This ALEC point of view from Arizona lawmakers became apparent while attending a function for neighborhood leaders at the state capitol.  That day, several Russell Pearce constituents shared stories about the inattention paid and utter lack of respect to the voices of constituents with an opposing point of view. Pearce was not alone in the practice of shutting opposition out of the process of governance. Later, when SB1070 pummeled  its way through the legislative process it seemed no matter how many letters written, phone calls made, petitions signed or people protesting at the capitol, the legislators simply were not listening. Then when ALEC came to Scottsdale, Arizona in November of last year and Arizona citizens went to find out who was ALEC, this group writing laws for the state. The protestors were promptly pepper-sprayed and arrested for their trouble. (Cronkitenews)  If the legislators were crafting legislation at these conventions open meeting laws ought to apply.

Although non-profit organizations supply vital information to understaffed lawmakers are a benefit to American democracy, this no longer is the case when the organization involved represents specific interests with an agenda whose actions serve only a privileged few, instead of the greater good of America. The laws put in place concerning lobbying came to be because of the biting sting of the last Great Depression, created by robber barons and war profiteers. The laws serve a purpose of consumer protection in America. Laws meant to avoid corrupting the government and allowing full discussion pertaining to the laws of the land, which mean to show some common measure of equality for every American that wishes to be a productive member of American society. This promise, given by the founding fathers is threatened and monarchy like privilege becomes the order of the day when the middle-class families of America no longer have an equal voice with those who already control so much of American life.   It is because neighborhood representation is not at the table to discuss the issues that place ALEC’s work in question regarding democracy in America. This missing piece leads many to believe that it is not a positive force.

In conclusion, it is common for state level legislators to solicit outside help when construction legislative language for a bill. To this end, non-profit groups that specialize in information gathering for a particular expertise to assist in various ways play a role in responsible bill writing. The services these groups provide are a benefit to American democracy because they assist lawmakers in having the best information possible in order to make the best choices possible to write law.  Yet, ALEC crosses the line into pure illegal lobbying, by giving special interest members more legislative authority than the legislators have. (McIntire) While tracking the bills for the purpose of harassing lawmakers if they do not do what the non-profit advises and when that non-profit shuts residents that the law affects out of the process of governance it can hardly be looked upon with favor.  Thus, ALEC or any group that employs its process is not a benefit to democracy. We must ensure policies are in place to counter the loopholes that allow ALEC to exist. It is only then that governance for the people by the people can exist once more in America.



Works Cited

ALEC. American Legislative Exchange Council, 2012. Web. 25 April 2012.

Bravender, Robin. “ALEC Support Wanes: Kraft Abandons Conservative Group.” 5 April 2012. Web. 25 April 2012

Clinton, Bill. Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

Cronkitenews. “Police pepper-spray Occupy Phoenix protestors at conservative gathering.” YouTube. YouTube. 2 December 2011. Web. 25 April 2012.

Frank, Ellen. The Raw Deal: How Myths and Misinformation About the Deficit, Inflation, and Wealth Impoverish America. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. Print.

Hartman, Thom. Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights. United States: Rodale, 2002. Print.

Krugman, Paul. “Lobbyists, Guns, and Money.” New York Times. New York Times, 25 March 2012. Web. 25 April 2012.

McIntire, Mike. Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist.  New York Times. New York Times. 21 April 2012. Web. 25 April 2012.

Newmyer, Tory. “The Big Political Player You’ve Never Heard Of.” Fortune Editors. Fortune. 10 January 2011. Web. 25 April 2012.

Nichols, John. “ALEC Exposed.” The Nation. The Nation. 12 July 2011. Web. 25 April 2012.

Nicknicemadison. “Mark Pocan – Explains how ALEC is working to eliminate public education (AB110)” YouTube. YouTube, 13 March 2012. Web. 25 April 2012.

Sourcewatch.  The Center for Media and Democracy, 2012. Web. 25 April 2012.

Sullivan, Laura. “How Corporate Interests Got SB1070 Passed.” Laura Sullivan Show. Public Radio. NPR  9 November 2010. Web. 25 April 2012.