What Is ALEC? Dragging the Secretive Conservative Organization Out of the Shadows
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As puzzle master Will Shortz might say, what is a four-letter acronym for a virtually unknown, but politically powerful conservative organization? If you guessed ALEC, you won't be receiving an NPR lapel pin, but rest assured, you are in very elite company.
Most people are unaware of the existence or reach of this shadowy organization. The members of ALEC would rather you remain ignorant of their purposes. In fact, these folks are so uncomfortable with anyone knowing about them that a University of Wisconsin history professor is being hammered by the Republican Party of that state for suggesting in an entry on his blog that in order to better understand the actions in various states with new Republican governors whose radical legislative proposals are remarkably similar, it might be worthwhile paying attention to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Hardly a day goes by without a conservative governor proposing some draconian anti-labor, anti-middle class law aimed at -- dare I say it -- destroying democracy in this country. And, while the Washington DC-based ALEC may not be responsible for all of the mayhem going on in such states as Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana, Florida and Michigan (with more states certain to follow), it has historically played an extraordinary role in shaping pro-corporate legislation in a number of states.
Interestingly, as of May 2010, Wisconsin's long-serving Republican Sen. Scott L. Fitzgerald, now the state's Senate Majority Leader, the man who has led the charge in the Wisconsin state senate against the state's workers on behalf of Governor Scott Walker, was listed as an ALEC State Chairman. This year, ALEC lists Assembly Rep. Robin J. Vos as its Wisconsin State Chairman. Vos is the co-chair of the Wisconsin budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.
A little ALEC history is in order: In 1973, the organization was established by the late Paul Weyrich (who co-founded the Heritage Foundation and is widely considered to be one of the Godfathers of the New Right), former Illinois Republican Congressman Henry Hyde, and conservative activist Lou Barnett. According to Source Watch, a project of the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC is a "semi-secretive" organization that "has been highly influential, has operated quietly in the United States for decades, and received remarkably little scrutiny from journalists, media or members of the public during that time."
ALEC denies that it is a lobbying group and it is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)3 charitable organization that has tax exempt status.
Although thousands of state and local lawmakers pay a "nominal membership fee to attend ALEC's retreats and receive model legislation," the bulk of the organization's financial support - over 80 percent of its income - comes from corporations. ALEC provides state legislators with model legislation in support of limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty.
In a report titled " ALEC: Ghostwriting the Law for Corporate America" and issued last May, the American Association for Justice described ALEC as "the ultimate smoke filled back room." In 2009 alone, according to the report, "826 bills were introduced in the states in 2009 and 115 were enacted into law."
This year, it is unclear whether the number of ALEC-inspired bills will exceed 2009's numbers, but it is clear that the scope of this year's frontal attack on working people appears to be the broadest in ALEC's nearly forty-year history.
"Behind the scenes at ALEC," the report pointed out, "the nuts and bolts of lobbying and crafting legislation is done by l[the] large corporate defense firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon." This "law firm with strong ties to the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, ... has long used ALEC's ability to get a wide swath of state laws enacted to further the interests of its corporate clients."
Over the years, the report noted, "the organization has promoted the interests of:
- Oil companies to undermine climate change proponents;
- Pharmaceutical manufacturers, arguing that states should be banned from importing prescription drugs;
- Telecom firms to block local authorities from offering cheap or free municipally-owned broadband;
- Insurance companies to prevent state insurance commissioners from requiring insurers to meet strengthened accounting and auditing rules;
- Big banks, recommending that seniors be forced to give up their homes via reverse mortgages in order to receive Medicaid;
- The asbestos industry, trying to shut the courthouse door to Americans suffering from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases; and,
- Enron to deregulate the utility industries, which eventually caused the U.S. to lose what the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) estimated as $5 trillion in market value.
As of last year, ALEC was organized into 10 separate issue task forces to produce model legislation, research, and reports. These task forces include Civil Justice, Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development, Education, Health and Human Services, International Relations, Natural Resources, Public Safety and Elections, Tax and Fiscal Policy, and Telecommunications and Information Technology. In each task force, according to ALEC's website, "legislators welcome their private sector counterparts to the table as equals, working in unison to solve the challenges facing our nation."
The organization convenes three legislative Task Force meetings each year, an Annual Meeting each summer, and a State & National Policy Summit toward the end of year. ALEC is apparently known for holding these meetings at delightful retreat sites and they offer "'scholarships' to defray the cost of attendance for public sector members."
Interestingly enough, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, widely known as a major initiator of welfare reform - also known as the wholesale privatization of welfare services -- was a "major force in ALEC's rebirth as a corporate front." In a 2002 piece for The American Prospect, Nick Penniman noted that Thompson once said that, "I always found new ideas and then I'd take them back to Wisconsin, disguise them a little bit, and declare that it's mine."
Although Wisconsin is a state that has a long history of progressive politics - think the early twentieth century's Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette and, more recently, Senator Russ Feingold - it has also given America the scourge of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and it currently is the national headquarters of the John Birch Society.
Which brings us back to the case of William Cronon, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin. Last week, the Wisconsin Republican Party made an Open Records Request seeking access to Professor Cronin's e-mails. The request came after Cronon wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times that criticized Wisconsin's Governor Walker and his attempts to destroy the state's public sector unions. On March 15, Cronon used his blog (" Scholar as Citizen") "to examine the role of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council in drafting that legislation," Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the Daily Kos, wrote recently in The Hill.
According to Moulitsas, "... Republicans have filed an open records request demanding access to Cronon's email, in particular any email with the words 'Republican,' 'collective bargaining,' 'union' and the names of several specific unions like AFSCME as well as the eight Republicans currently threatened by the recall effort."
In his blog post titled "Who's Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn't Start Here)," Cronon provided a condensed "Study Guide" for those wanting to know more about the genesis of Walker's legislative initiatives as well as a short history of the modern conservative movement.
Cronon pointed out that despite the enormous contributions - financial and ideological - the Koch brothers have made to the conservative movement, he didn't "find it plausible that two brothers from Wichita, Kansas, no matter how wealthy, can be responsible for this explosion of radical conservative legislation."
He went on to note that he is "pretty sure" that "the most important group" behind the current spate of anti-labor legislation is ALEC. "If you're as impressed by [its legislative successes] as I am, I'm hoping you'll agree with me that it may be time to start paying more attention to ALEC and the bills its seeks to promote."
Soon after the blog entry, the state Republican Party launched its attack.
It remains unclear as to what direct role ALEC has played in the current spate of activities aimed at dismantling workers rights and ultimately destroying the middle class.
For years an assortment of enterprising journalists and progressive organizations have taken a go at ALEC. The headlines and titles of some of the stories and/or reports that have been written -- "Ghostwriting the Law for Corporate America," "Corporate America's Trojan Horse in the States: The Untold Story Behind the American Legislative Exchange Council," a report by the Defenders of Wildlife and Natural Resources Defense Council -- serve as examples of how difficult it has been to expose ALEC's activities. It's more than past time to drag ALEC out of the shadows.
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements.