Inside ALEC's Powerful, Right-Wing Indoctrination Machine
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
SALT LAKE CITY -- You won't see signs for the country's sweetest travel-club deal in the window of your local travel store. To join the American Legislative Exchange Council, your fellow citizens must first elect you to statewide office. If you win as a Republican or conservative Democrat, your ALEC state chair will approach with terms of membership you'll find generous, if not impossible to resist. A token $100 buys the opportunity to attend all-inclusive events on ALEC's busy calendar of summits, conferences, and academies, where you and your family can enjoy some of the country's finest resorts and destination hotels. Joints like Utah's Grand America, site of ALEC's just concluded national conference and proud bearer of AAA's "Five Diamond" rating.
It was on the eve of this conference that I first glimpsed the privileges and perks of ALEC membership. I was sitting in the Grand America's Viennese style lobby café, pondering the primrose bush courtyard outside as a young harpist plucked out Fur Elise, when an ALEC staffer appeared and began placing laminated cards on the tables. She was followed by groups of women, the wives and daughters of ALEC state legislators and lobbyists, sitting down to enjoy a British Full Tea of sweets, scones and jams, laid out on an elaborate spread of fine china. I picked up one of the laminated cards and read: "Enjoy your 'ALEC-SNACKS'!" Beneath the text were the logos of Americans for Prosperity and the American Insurance Association, two ALEC sponsors. As ALEC snacks were served, the tables grew atwitter. "This is so nice," said the wide-eyed wife of a Virginia state representative.
Not long after, the china was taken away and the café grew busy with attendees getting down to business. A hundred or so legislators, corporate representatives, and think tank staff greeted each other and ordered cocktails, filling the room with an ambient babble of right-leaning schmooze and networking. I've had to deal with those same damn unions.... We've got a few big tort reform bills in the pipe.... I'd love for you to come visit the plant .... Are you with Goldwater or Heritage now?
Before ALEC grew into an influential national force over the last two decades, few state-level politicians ever knew corporate pampering at swank hotels thousands of miles from their home districts, the scope for which all but disappeared with the introduction of post-Watergate ethics rules. Unlike their federal counterparts, state reps have generally tracked closer to the old republican ideal of the citizen-politician -- middle-class, part-time public servants who keep their day jobs as teachers, accountants, lawyers, farmers. Some of them have always been targeted and feted by special interests, but it was ALEC that innovated a private sector mechanism for corralling state representatives en masse to posh locations like the Grand for long weekends of cozy corporate lobbying and blunt-force ideological indoctrination.
For much of its four decades, the corporations and rightwing foundations that provide all but a thin slice of ALEC's current $7 million budget have succeeded in exerting pressure on the direction of the people's business in 50 statehouses. Unlike the National Council of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments, to which it often compares itself, ALEC is driven to an extraordinary degree by its private sector sponsors. It also aggressively hides from the press and the public the proceedings of its closed-door task force meetings, where corporate representatives vote on equal footing with elected legislators on model bills, who rarely identify the origins of ALEC bills when they are later introduced to become law.
Most Americans live under at least one product of these meetings, as the group has been very effective in turning one state's notorious right-wing bills into model legislation that can be pushed across the country. Arizona's infamous "Show Me Your Papers" law (SB 1070) took this path, with similar model legislation subsequently passed by ALEC's criminal justice task force, which the for-profit prison behemoth Corrections Corporation of America once co-chaired and had long been a member. So did the National Rifle Association's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law; ALEC used legislation passed in Florida as a template for a model bill that was eventually passed in two-dozen other states. ALEC's role in pushing reportedly discriminatory voter ID bills has followed a similar pattern.
ALEC's various Task Forces have altogether produced thousands of pieces of model legislation that have little to do with organic movements inside the states and everything to do with top-down nationwide attacks on workers' rights, environmental and other industry regulations, as well as pushes to accelerate the privatization of public education, federal lands, and the criminal justice system. The group has proven to be an ingenious multi-purpose tool for expanding corporate power. Like any lobby shop, it is pay-to-play. Corporate memberships run between $7,000 and $25,000, which buys full voting rights on Task Forces that function as bill mills for national and multinational corporations, industrial trade associations, and right-wing think tanks. Just as $100 is a steal for legislators, $25,000 is a bargain on the private sector side. As early as 1995, an article sent to ALEC's private sector members boasted of the group's growing effectiveness. "With our success rate at more than 20 percent [of bills passed] I would say that ALEC is a good investment," then-executive director Samuel Brunelli told corporate backers. "Nowhere else can you get a return that high."
The ultimate return sought by ALEC is nothing less than the rollback of the state and the establishment of unfettered corporate rule over everything from vast tracts of American wilderness to K through 12 education.
But ALEC's long-term goals are increasingly threatened by growing public awareness of its work. For years it has increased its influence while flying low enough to the ground to avoid public radar. This began to change last summer, when Lisa Graves, a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General for legal policy at the Justice Department, launched ALECexposed.org after a whistleblower shared with her hundreds of ALEC bills pre-voted on by corporate lobbyists. "The leaks let us connect all of the dots for the first time," says Graves. Among the most important of these dots was the revelation that ALEC had been a driving force, along with its close ally the NRA, behind 24 states' adoption of the gun industry's "Stand Your Ground" law. The law became the subject of fierce national debate when it was applied to Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, protecting him from arrest and complicating his prosecution.
"We had a growing amount of press coverage when the Trayvon Martin tragedy captured the media's attention," says Graves. "That, combined with ALEC's role in making it harder for Americans to vote in states across the country, led to the breakthrough in public awareness about this secretive group." A coalition of progressive organizations -- led by Color of Change, Common Cause, Credo, People for the American Way, Progress Now and the Center for Media and Democracy -- resulted in raising the profile on ALEC's work and triggering calls for transparency. Thirty corporations have since broken off from the group, many claiming that they joined because of narrow economic interests and want no part of ALEC's broader agenda touching on guns and voting.
When the corporate exodus began, ALEC responded by dissolving the Public Safety and Elections Task Force that produced "Stand Your Ground" at the NRA's urging. By all appearances, the scrapping of the task force is more cosmetic surgery than organ removal. The NRA bought a large booth in this year's exhibition hall and sponsored a trap shoot on the last day of the conference, as it has for the past several years. Present in Salt Lake City was not only the NRA's state coordinator Chuck Cunningham, but also NRA board member Grover Norquist.
When asked if he still considers ALEC a useful vehicle of influence without the Task Force, Cunningham muttered something about "going where the legislators are" and turned away. It was understandable that Cunningham wasn't eager to speak to press. Days before the start of the Salt Lake conference, a mentally unbalanced Colorado man killed 12 and wounded dozens in a crowded movie theater. The ALEC gun agenda, crafted over the years with NRA participation, features a variety of bills and resolutions aimed at weakening gun restriction, notably support for assault weapons of the kind used in multiple recent gun massacres.
Whether the exit of major companies like GM, Walgreens, and Coca-Cola is threatening ALEC's bottom line is unclear. "Some small consultancy pays the same rate to join as a major corporation, so I don't think it's had much impact," says Dennis Bartlett, a 20-year ALEC veteran and chairman emeritus of the corporate board. (ALEC communications staff did not respond to requests for interviews.) But even if its budget has not taken the hit the departure of so many corporate sponsors would seem to indicate, the negative publicity of the last year has forced ALEC into a defensive posture. During the breakfast and lunch award ceremonies and keynotes, screens flashed with "ALEC in the news" clips taken from the conservative press. Many were reactive; some were desperate in tone.
Not even Utah offered haven from ALEC's new post-Trayvon Martin reality. Governor Gary Herbert personally welcomed the conference to the Beehive State, which is the closest thing to a poster child for ALEC's economic policies. Later two Utah Congressmen addressed the group, which included 34 Utah state reps. The welcome committee outside the hotel's valet-guarded door was a different story. Sign-wielding protestors circled and chanted on the sidewalk outside. Two blocks away, a community theater hosted a shadow conference co-produced by the Alliance for a Better Utah, the Center for Media and Democracy, and others in the national coalition to "Expose ALEC."
The organizers of the well-attended event received a surprising amount of sympathetic local press. The local Fox affiliate ran multiple segments during the conference giving equal time to critical voices. Salt Lake's alternative weekly devoted a cover story to providing an ALEC 101. A crushing comic appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune, which assigned a reporter inside the Grand, one of very few granted a press credential. Local radio stations covered the counter-conference; one sponsored a debate that fizzled at the last minute when the ALEC-affiliated Sutherland Institute backed out. Then there was the guerrilla media. On telephone poles across the city, posters skewered ALEC as "merging capital and state since 1973."
Despite its claims of fidelity to bottom-up Jeffersonian federalism and local control, ALEC works off of a national game plan that involves all levels of government. It knows state legislators often grow up to become powerful United States Congressmen and Senators. The group stays in touch with its legislative members who have moved on to Washington, a roll call that includes John Boehner and Eric Cantor among dozens of House members and Marco Rubio among nine Senators. ALEC's resolutions, meanwhile, are often designed with national policy in mind, to be sent to Congressional delegations and federal departments. "The resolutions create the illusion in Washington of a groundswell of grassroots support for issues where none exists," says Jennifer Seelig, a Utah Democratic state rep and former ALEC member. "A lot of them also end up being nuisances that eat up valuable time in session when we could be dealing with real problems."
This year ALEC's International Relations Task Force passed two such resolutions opposing cuts to the Pentagon budget and urging the relaxation of regulations around the export of "dual-use" technology. The IR Task Force, co-chaired by Rep. Harold Brubaker (R-NC) and Brandie Davis of Philip Morris International (a 2012 ALEC private sector "Member of the Year") also adopted resolutions opposing a "global UN tax" and UN control of the Internet. Among the model bills to emerge from the IR Task Force is a "Sound Money Act" that would eliminate taxation on gold and silver coins and allow their use as legal tender alongside currency issued by the U.S. Treasury.
Defense budgets and illusory UN taxes are tangential to ALEC's main thrust at the moment: the push to privatize public lands and public education.
Big Energy loves ALEC. It always has. Internal documents show the group has counted on financial support from Koch Industries, Peabody Coal, the American Gas Association, the Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and their numerous subsidiaries (a stealth way to increase ALEC voting power). In line with their long-term investment, the industry enjoys a special status at ALEC events. Last year's ALEC conference in New Orleans featured a workshop called "Warming up to climate change," at which a panel of climate change skeptics touted "the many benefits of increased atmospheric CO2."
Mark Pocan, a Democratic Wisconsin state representative who joined ALEC to investigate the source of so much right-wing legislation he saw bubbling up from nowhere in Madison, attended the forum. He remembers the Texas legislator who introduced the event comparing ALEC legislators to a football team. "He said, 'Okay, everybody, listen up. These guys [corporate lobbyists and industry-funded think tanks] are the coaches, and we're the players," says Pocan. "That really is how they see the relationship."
The agenda in Salt Lake City was heavy on energy themes. Keynoting one of the luncheons was Robert Bradley, CEO of the free-market and pro-climate change Institute for Energy Research. Bradley informed the legislators packed into the Grand Ballroom that "the human impact on the climate is a probably a net positive," and boasted of America's growing production of oil, coal and gas. His chirpy manner darkened only when he noted China's growing lead in the production and use of coal. "China beats us on coal," lamented Bradley. "If not for China, we'd be number one." His PowerPoint presentation listed ALEC's core energy principles, such as: "oil, gas, and coal are cleaner than renewable," and "environmental regulation only benefits environmental elites." He praised a "powerful" new Shell ad campaign promoting offshore drilling, and spoke of his fear that massacres would soon begin taking place in doctors' offices as a result of The Affordable Care Act, which ALEC has attacked repeatedly.
In conclusion, Bradley assured his audience, "You have the environmental high ground in supporting dense energy [oil and coal] over [renewable] sources that require so much surface space, is unsightly, is noisy, and all the rest of it."
Like all ALEC speakers, Bradley spiced his lecture with odes to the free-market and the graceful movement of Invisible Energy Hands. But a central aspect of the classical free-market argument is the free exchange of information, and ALEC's model bills concerning energy and the environment make enemies of transparency. ALEC has passed bills opposing the mandatory disclosure of energy sources on utility bills and the chemicals used in fracking. Then there is ALEC's support for the nuclear power industry, which is heavily dependent on state subsidy for everything from construction to waste disposal.
ALEC's energy politics are of a piece with its push to privatize public lands. The afternoon following Bradley's talk, attendees were treated to Rep. Rob Bishop's (R-UT) thoughts on the need for states to assert "local use and control" over millions of acres of protected federal land. He pointed with pride to the passage of Utah's Public Land Transfer Act, an ALEC model bill sponsored by Utah state reps (and ALEC members) Ken Ivory and Wayne Niederhauser. The bill was written in conjunction with energy companies eager to rip up Utah's wild acres and develop "unconventional" carbon fuels like oil from shale rock and tar sands. In arguing for the need to develop Utah's outback, Bishop urged lawmakers to think of the children. "Our kids are hurting because of our land policies," said Bishop. "If we allow states to have a new paradigm, to let federalism be the salvation of this country, we'll have more money for our education budgets."
It was jarring to hear an ALEC speaker discussing public education as a worthwhile social good. This year ALEC's Education Task Force focused on a bill opposing common national standards that would impede state-level privatization, and another pushing for virtual charter schools. For several years until this summer, ALEC's education task force was co-chaired by a virtual school corporation.
That very morning over breakfast, former Democratic U.S. representative Artur Davis addressed the conference on the need for radical "educational reform" and the transfer of vast amounts of public education funds into private hands through voucher programs and for-profit digital education. Davis' ALEC speech doubled as a ceremony marking the completion of the former Alabama Democrat's shift to the right. Davis, who nominated Barack Obama at the party's '08 convention, began his conservative turn after losing his primary race for governor in 2010. Soon he was declaring his support for voter ID laws, which ALEC loves, and contributing to National Review. The audience in Salt Lake welcomed Davis into his new political home, where it sounds like he is preparing to stay busy on the growing education privatization circuit. His education reform talk was extremely polished for a newbie to the cause.
ALEC's efforts to direct important policy shifts on a state level have often received little local news attention, as coverage of state politics has waned due to major budget cutbacks at newspapers around the country. Helping to fill that gap has been the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, an ALEC sponsor and close ally that oversees 55 news sites covering state governments in 39 states.
On the last day of the conference, I returned to the café lobby to interview a new ALEC legislative member named Don Shooter. A farmer by profession from Yuma, Arizona, Shooter won his election as a write-in candidate. He says he hates politics but felt the call of duty. After his election he was naturally drawn to ALEC by a philosophical kinship with the group's limited-government principles. When asked about the role of corporations within the organization, he described corporate power as being "the natural order of things."
"The way that you beat too much corporate or governmental power is to be decentralized," he said. "If the multinationals want to do something crooked, they have to make 50 attempts to be crooked, [instead of] just bribing one outfit. I don't think ALEC is mysterious, or subversive to democracy, the way the Bilderburgers are. ALEC is a way for likeminded people to get together and consolidate approaches to all these problems on a limited-government basis. All we want is to keep the deal in the Constitution. The amazing thing about the founders was that they knew history."
Which is more than you can say for ALEC. The group's dominant propaganda theme, pummeled into conference attendees from the moment they walk in the door, is the appropriation of Jeffersonian federalism in the defense of policies that concentrate national wealth rather than distribute it. At daily award ceremonies (ALEC gives out a lot of awards) small busts of Jefferson are presented to public and private sector Members of the Year for "advancing Jeffersonian principles" -- which really means advancing legislation that reinforces exactly the kinds of power skews loathed by the egalitarian-republican Jefferson.
Jefferson's vision was not ALEC's. He spoke for many of his Revolutionary peers when he hoped that "we shall crush... in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country." Jefferson always held a dim and anxious view of the development of powerful commercial interests. Gordon S. Wood, our greatest living historian of the Revolution and early America, writes in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, "To his dying day Jefferson believed that the state legislatures should grant [corporate charters] only sparingly and should be able to interfere with them or take them back anytime they wished."
If ALEC has one purpose, it is to make sure their members never dream of doing any such thing.