Bill Moyers Exposes the Stranglehold the Corporate & Right-Wing Alliance Has on Our Democracy
This week, Moyers & Company reports on the most influential corporate-funded political force most of America has never heard of — ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. A national consortium of state politicians and powerful corporations, ALEC presents itself as a “nonpartisan public-private partnership”. But behind that mantra lies a vast network of corporate lobbying and political action aimed to increase corporate profits at public expense without public knowledge. Using interviews, documents, and field reporting, the episode explores ALEC’s self-serving machine at work, acting in a way one Wisconsin politician describes as “a corporate dating service for lonely legislators and corporate special interests.” In state houses around the country, hundreds of pieces of boilerplate ALEC legislation are proposed or enacted that would, among other things, dilute collective bargaining rights, make it harder for some Americans to vote, and limit corporate liability for harm caused to consumers — each accomplished without the public ever knowing who’s behind it. “All of us here are very familiar with ALEC and the influence that ALEC has with many of the [legislative] members,” says Arizona State Senator Steve Farley. “Corporations have the right to present their arguments, but they don’t have the right to do it secretly.” Watch the broadcast on Friday on your local PBS station.
Visit BillMoyers.com to find your local listings.
Watch a preview from the broadcast: In Wisconsin, Lisa Graves, a former Justice Department attorney now with the Center for Media and Democracy, shares documentation of various ALEC-inspired boilerplate laws, versions of which are showing up in statehouses across the country.
Democracy Now! premiered the special video report on Thursday. What follows is a transcript of Moyers' special report on ALEC.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin our show today with a look at the secretive American Legislative Exchange Council. The organization, often known as just ALEC, brings together major corporations and state legislators to craft and vote on "model" bills behind closed doors. It’s come under increasing scrutiny for its role in promoting "stand your ground" gun laws, voter suppression bills, union-busting policies and other controversial legislation. The organization’s agenda has sparked so much controversy that 40 major U.S. companies, including Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Kraft and General Motors, have recently severed ties with ALEC.
ALEC is the focus of a new documentary by the legendary journalist Bill Moyers titled The United States of ALEC. It will air this weekend on Moyers & Companybut is premiering today here on Democracy Now!
STATE REP. STEVE FARLEY: I’ve often told people that I talk to out on the campaign trail, when they say, "State what?" when I say I’m running for state legislature, I tell them that the decisions that are made here in the legislature are often more important for your everyday life than the decisions the president makes.
JOHN NICHOLS: If you really want to influence the politics of this country, you don’t just give money to presidential campaigns, you don’t just give money to congressional campaign committees. Smart players put their money in the states.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: ALEC has forged a unique partnership between state legislators and leaders from the corporate and business community. This partnership offers businessmen the extraordinary opportunity to apply their talents to solve our nation’s problems and build on our opportunities.
LISA GRAVES: I was stunned at the notion that politicians and corporate representatives, corporate lobbyists, were actually voting behind closed doors on these changes to the law before they were introduced in statehouses across the country.
HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: ALEC has been, I think, a wonderful organization. Not only does it bring like-minded legislators together, but the private sector engagement and partnership in ALEC is really what I think makes it the organization that it is.
BILL MOYERS: You might have heard the name ALEC in the news lately.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: The American Legislative Exchange Council, orALEC, for short.
REPORTER: The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
BILL MOYERS: ALEC is a nationwide consortium of elected state legislators working side by side with some of America’s most powerful corporations. They have an agenda you should know about: a mission to remake America, changing the country by changing its laws one state at a time. ALEC creates what it calls "model legislation," pro-corporate laws like this one that its members push in statehouses across the country. ALEC says close to a thousand bills, based at least in part on its models, are introduced every year, and an average of 200 pass. This has been going on for decades, but somehow ALECmanaged to remain the most influential, corporate-funded political organization you had never heard of—until a gunshot sounded in the Florida night.
RACHEL MADDOW: Trayvon Martin, unarmed, but for a bag of candy and an iced tea that he was carrying.
BILL MOYERS: You’ll recall that the shooter in Trayvon Martin’s death was protected at first by Florida’s so-called "stand your ground" law. That law was the work of the National Rifle Association. There is its lobbyist standing right beside Governor Jeb Bush when he signed it into law in 2005. Although ALEC didn’t originate the Florida law, it seized on it for the "stand your ground" model it would circulate in other states. Twenty-four of them have passed a version of it.
RASHAD ROBINSON: How did this law not only get in place in Florida but around the country? And all the fingers kept pointing back to ALEC.
BILL MOYERS: When civil rights and grassroots groups learned about ALEC’s connection to "stand your ground" laws, they were outraged.
RASHAD ROBINSON: ALEC doesn’t do its work alone; they do it with some of the biggest corporate brands in America.
BILL MOYERS: Before long, corporations were pulling out of ALEC, including Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, Mars, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson. Caught in the glare of the national spotlight, ALEC tried to change the subject.
KAITLYN BUSS: You know, I think that the entire debate needs to be reframed. And really what ALEC is is a bipartisan association of state legislators. We have, you know, legislators of all political stripes coming together to talk about the most critical issues facing the states and trying to come up with the best solutions to face some of the problems we’re having.
MEGYN KELLY: Right. So, your point is it’s not a partisan organization.
BILL MOYERS: But ALEC is partisan. And then some.
LISA GRAVES: In the spring, I got a call from a person who said that all of the ALEC bills were available, and was I interested in looking at them. And I said I was.
BILL MOYERS: Lisa Graves, a former Justice Department lawyer, runs the Center for Media Democracy. That’s a nonprofit investigative reporting group in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2011, by way of an ALECinsider, Graves got her hands on a virtual library of internal ALECdocuments. She was amazed by its contents: a treasure trove of actualALEC model bills.
LISA GRAVES: These are the bills that were provided by the whistleblower. That’s just the index.
BILL MOYERS: There were more than 850 of them, 850 boilerplate laws that ALEC legislators could introduce as their own in any state in the union.
LISA GRAVES: Bills to change the law to make it harder for Americans to vote, those were ALEC bills. Bills to dramatically change the rights of Americans who are killed or injured by corporations, those wereALEC bills. Bills to make it harder for unions to do their work wereALEC bills. Bills to basically block climate change agreements, those were ALEC bills. When I looked at them, I was really shocked. I didn’t know how incredibly extensive and deep and far-reaching this effort to rework our laws was.
BILL MOYERS: She and her team begin to plow to ALEC’s documents, as well as public sources, to compile a list of the organizations and people who were or have been ALEC members. They found hundreds of corporations, from Coca-Cola and Koch Industries to ExxonMobil, Pfizer and Wal-Mart; dozens of right-wing think tanks and foundations; two dozen corporate law firms and lobbying firms; and some thousand state legislators, a few of them Democrats, the majority of them Republican.
STATE REP. MARK POCAN: ALEC is a corporate dating service for lonely legislators and corporate special interests that eventually the relationship culminates with some special interest legislation, and, hopefully, that lives happily ever after as the ALEC model. Unfortunately, what’s excluded from that equation is the public.
BILL MOYERS: In the Wisconsin Statehouse, Democratic Representative Mark Pocan is trying to expose ALEC’s fingerprints whenever he can. By one count, over a third of Pocan’s fellow Wisconsin lawmakers are ALEC members.
STATE REP. MARK POCAN: When you look around, especially on the Republican side of the aisle, a lot of members of ALEC. Front row,ALEC. When you start going down to, you know, the chair of finance and some of the other members, are all ALEC members—in fact, ALECco-chair for the state—row by row, you can point out people who have been members of ALEC over the years.
There’s two main categories they have. One is how to reduce the size of government. And the other half of it is this model legislation that’s in the corporate good—in other words, this profit-driven legislation: how can you open up a new market, how can you privatize something that can open up a market for a company? And between those two divisions, you’re kind of getting to the same end goal, which is really kind of ultimate privatization of everything.
BILL MOYERS: Mark Pocan is something of an expert on ALEC. In fact, to learn as much as he could, he became a member.
STATE REP. MARK POCAN: What I had realized is if you join ALECfor a mere $100 as a legislator, you have the full access, like any corporate member.
BILL MOYERS: He also took himself to an ALEC conference for a firsthand look.
STATE REP. MARK POCAN: Hi. I’m State Representative Mark Pocan, and welcome to my video blog. I’m outside the Marriott on Canal Street in New Orleans at the ALEC convention, the American Legislative Exchange Council.
That was where you watched the interaction of a room full of lobbyists. You know, free drinks, free cigars, wining, dining. Many people just came from a dinner that was sponsored by some special interest, coming to a party that’s sponsored by a special interest, so they can continue to talk about special interests.
LISA GRAVES: This is from the New Orleans convention. This includes a number of seminars that they held for legislators, including one called "Warming Up to Climate Change: The Many Benefits of Increased Atmospheric CO2."
BILL MOYERS: That 2011 ALEC conference, lo and behold, was sponsored by BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell, among others. Another of its events featured guns.
LISA GRAVES: This is the NRA-sponsored shooting event, for legislators and for lobbyists. Free.
BILL MOYERS: There was even one offering free cigars.
LISA GRAVES: Sponsored by Reynolds American, which is one of the biggest tobacco companies in the world, and the Cigar Association of America.
BILL MOYERS: It sounds like lobbying. It looks like lobbying. It smells like lobbying. But ALEC says it’s not lobbying. In fact, ALEC operates not as a lobby group but as a nonprofit, a charity. In its filing with theIRS, ALEC says its mission is education, which means it pays no taxes and its corporate members get a tax write-off. Its legislators get a lot, too.
STATE REP. MARK POCAN: In Wisconsin, I can’t take anything of value from a lobbyist. I can’t take a cup of coffee from a lobbyist. AtALEC, it’s just the opposite. You know, you get there, and you’re being wined and dined by corporate interests. I can go down there and be wined and dined for days in order to hear about their special legislation. I mean, the head of Shell Oil flew in on his private jet to come to this conference. The head of one of the largest utility companies in the country was there on a panel, a utility company in 13 states. And here he is presenting to legislators. I mean, they clearly brought in some of the biggest corporate names in special interestdom and had them meeting with legislators, because a lot of business transpires at these events.
AMY GOODMAN: The United States of ALEC. We will return to Bill Moyers’ special report in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to part two of The United States of ALEC, a special report by Bill Moyers. It’s airing this weekend on Moyers & Company but is premiering today here on Democracy Now!
BILL MOYERS: The most important business happens in what ALECcalls "task forces." There are currently eight of them, with a corporate take on every important issue in American life, from health and safety to the environment, to taxation. In ALEC task forces, elected state officials and corporate representatives close the doors to press and public and together approve the bills that will be sent out to America. But Americans have no idea they come from ALEC, unless someone like a Mark Pocan exposes it.
STATE REP. MARK POCAN: When I went down to New Orleans to theALEC convention last August, I remember going to a workshop and hearing a little bit about a bill they did in Florida and some other states, and there was a proposal to provide special needs scholarships. And lo and behold, all of a sudden I come back to Wisconsin, and what gets introduced? Get ready; I know you’re going to have a shocked look on your face. A bill to do just that.
BILL MOYERS: Twenty-six ALEC members in the Wisconsin legislature sponsored that special needs bill, but the real sponsor wasALEC. Pocan knew, because the bill bore a striking resemblance to ALEC’s model. Have a look.
But Pocan isn’t only concerned that ALEC sneaks bills into the state legislature. The intent behind the bills troubles him, too.
STATE REP. MARK POCAN: Some of their legislation sounds so innocuous, but when you start to read about why they’re doing it, you know there’s a far different reason why something’s coming forward, and that’s important. If the average person knew that a bill like this came from some group like ALEC, you’ll look at the bill very differently, and you might look at that legislator a little differently about why they introduced it.
This is not about education. This is not about helping kids with special needs. This is about privatization. This is about corporate profits. And this is about dismantling public education.
BILL MOYERS: The bill passed in the Wisconsin House but failed to make it through the Senate. However, in its education report card,ALEC boasts that similar bills have passed in Oklahoma, Louisiana, North Carolina and Ohio. ALEC’s education agenda includes online schooling, as well. Take a careful look, and you’ll find the profit motive there, too.
LISA GRAVES: What you see is corporations that have a direct benefit, whose bottom line directly benefits from these bills, voting on these bills in the ALEC task force. And so, corporations like Connections Academy, corporations like K12, they have a direct financial interest in advancing this agenda.
BILL MOYERS: Those corporations, Connections Academy and K12, which specialize in online education, can profit handsomely from laws that direct taxpayer money toward businesses like theirs. In 2011, both sat on ALEC’s Education Task Force. But the two companies didn’t just approve the model bill, they helped craft it. The proof is in one of ALEC’s own documents. And there’s more to the story.
STATE SEN. DOLORES GRESHAM: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. House Bill 1030 has to do with the establishment of virtual public schools.
BILL MOYERS: Last year, an online schooling bill based on the ALECmodel turned up in another state where ALEC has a powerful influence: Tennessee. It was introduced in both the state Senate and House byALEC members. The bill passed, making private corporations eligible for public money for online education. Then, within weeks, the K12 corporation got what amounted to a no-bid contract to provide online education to any Tennessee student from kindergarten through the eighth grade.
So, let’s review. The ALEC member corporations helped craft the bill.ALEC legislators introduced it and vote on it. And now there’s a state law on the books that enables one of those corporations to get state money. Game, set, match. But remember, this story isn’t about one company and the education industry and one law in Tennessee; it’s about hundreds of corporations in most every industry influencing lawmakers in state after state, using ALEC as a front.
Here’s another example. The American Bail Coalition, which represents the bail bond industry, pulls no punches about writing ALEC’s model bills itself. In a newsletter a few years back, the coalition boasted that it had written 12 ALEC model bills fortifying the commercial bail industry. Here’s Jerry Watson, senior legal counsel for the coalition, speaking at an ALEC meeting in 2007. He has a law to offer.
JERRY WATSON: There is a model bill for you to review, if you might be interested in introducing such a measure.
BILL MOYERS: He’ll even help legislators amend it.
JERRY WATSON: Now, if you don’t like the precise language of these suggested documents, can they be tweaked by your legislative council? Well, absolutely. And will we work with them on that and work with you and your staff on that? Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: All the lawmakers have to do is ring him up.
JERRY WATSON: There is a phone number there for our executive offices in Washington, D.C. We’re prepared to help you and your staff and support this legislation in any way that we can.
BILL MOYERS: And guess what? There’s gold at the end of the rainbow.
JERRY WATSON: But I’m not so crazy as not to know that you’ve already figured out that if I can talk you into doing this bill, my clients are going to make a—some money on the bond premiums.
BILL MOYERS: And corporate interest conflated with the public interest.
JERRY WATSON: But if we can help you save crime victims in your legislative district and generate positive revenue for your state and help solve your prison overcrowding problem, you don’t mind me making a dollar.
BILL MOYERS: ALEC members are seldom as upfront as the American Bail Coalition. In fact, ordinarily, ALEC’s hand is very hard to see at all. But if you know where to look, you’ll often find ALEC hiding in plain sight.
LISA GRAVES: ALEC has, in addition to its regular vacation resort trips, it also has special, what it calls "boot camps" on particular substantive issues.
BILL MOYERS: In March 2011, ALEC held one of those boot camps for legislators at the North Carolina Capitol in Raleigh. The subject was so-called tort reform, how to keep the average Joe from successfully suing a corporation for damages. The day after the boot camp, two state representatives presented the draft version of a House bill chock-full of ALEC priorities. It would, among other things, limit corporate product liability in North Carolina. One of the representatives, Johnathan Rhyne, was quoted in the Raleigh News [&] Observer saying of ALEC, "I really don’t know much about them." That’s odd, because Rhyne had been listed as a featured speaker at the ALEC tort reform boot camp. The paper also reported that Rhyne said the bill wasn’t copied from ALEC model legislation. That, too, is odd, given how the sections covering product liability could have passed as twins.
The bill was controversial. It passed, but only after the product liability sections were taken out of it. But the tort reformers didn’t give up. They were back a year later, this time with a draft bill aimed specifically to limit the liability of drug manufacturers. When the public was allowed to comment before a legislative panel, people who had lost loved ones came to testify against the bill. A son who had lost a father.
SURVIVING SON: You know, my dad’s gone. All I can do is sit here and be a voice for him. He can’t speak anymore.
BILL MOYERS: A grandfather mourning his granddaughter.
SURVIVING GRANDFATHER: If this bill passes, an innocent victim in North Carolina like Brittany could not hold a manufacturer accountable. Everyone needs to be accountable for their actions.
BILL MOYERS: Unmentioned to those in the room, ALEC was present, too, in the form of a lobbyist with drug manufacturing giant GlaxoSmithKline. His name is John Del Giorno.
JOHN DEL GIORNO: Several of the opposing testifiers today brought up very compelling, sad, empathetic stories.
BILL MOYERS: Not only is Glaxo an ALEC corporate member, Del Giorno himself is also a vice chairman of ALEC’s national private enterprise board. The North Carolina bill has been tabled for now.
So now you’ve seen how it works for corporations. How about for the politicians?
ANDERSON COOPER: Last night was, as the president finally acknowledged today, a shellacking. Republicans gained control of the House, picking up 60 seats so far.
BILL MOYERS: When all of the returns were counted on election night 2010, ALEC was a big winner. Eight of the Republican governors elected or re-elected that night had ties to the group.
GOV.-ELECT JOHN KASICH: Guess what? I’m going to be governor of Ohio!
GOV.-ELECT NIKKI HALEY: There’s going to be a lot of news and a lot of observers that say that we made history.
GOV. JAN BREWER: A clean sweep for Republicans!
BILL MOYERS: And a star was born that election night: Wisconsin’s new governor, a son of ALEC named Scott Walker.
GOV.-ELECT SCOTT WALKER: Wisconsin is open for business!
JOHN NICHOLS: I’ve known Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, for the better part of 20 years. And Scott is a classic career politician. And I don’t say that in a negative way.
BILL MOYERS: Journalist and Wisconsinite John Nichols has tracked Scott Walker’s career since the ’90s, when Walker was a state legislator and then-ALEC member.
JOHN NICHOLS: And in 2010, he ran, not presenting himself as anALEC alumni or as a ally of big corporations or big business people outside the state; he ran a very down-home campaign.
SCOTT WALKER: This is my lunch. I pack a brown bag each day so I can save some money to spend on, you know, the more important things in life, like sending my kids to college.
BILL MOYERS: Nichols says that despite the folksy image, in the years leading up to Walker’s 2010 campaign, he had become a master political fundraiser.
JOHN NICHOLS: And he began to really forge incredibly close ties with a lot of corporate interests that he had first been introduced to in ALEC, individuals and groups like the Koch brothers.
BILL MOYERS: David and Charles Koch, the billionaire businessmen behind the vast industrial empire, are also political activists with an agenda. Their companies and foundations have been ALEC members and funders for years.
JOHN NICHOLS: The Koch brothers were among the two or three largest contributors to Scott Walker’s campaign for governor of Wisconsin. And the Koch brothers get that if you really want to influence the politics of this country, you don’t just give money to presidential campaigns, you don’t just give money to congressional campaign committees. The smart ones, the smart players, put their money in the states.
SCOTT WALKER: Hi. I’m Scott Walker.
JOHN NICHOLS: It’s state government that funds education, social services. And it taxes.
SCOTT WALKER: If you want lower taxes and less government, I’m Scott Walker, and I know how to get the job done.
JOHN NICHOLS: And so, the smart donors can change the whole country without ever going to Washington, without ever having to go through a congressional hearing, without ever having to lobby on Capitol Hill, without ever having to talk to the president.
JUSTICE SHIRLEY ABRAHAMSON: Please raise your right hand and repeat after me.
BILL MOYERS: The new governor moved quickly with a raft of ALEC-inspired bills. They included one similar to Florida’s "stand your ground." Another made it easier to carry concealed weapons. There was a resolution opposing the mandated purchase of health insurance. And, of course, there was one limiting corporate liability. The Wisconsin legislature passed a so-called tort reform measure that included parts of eight different ALEC models. ALEC was elated, praising Walker and the legislature in a press release for their, quote, "immediate attention to reforming the state’s legal system." But Scott Walker was also shooting for another big ALEC prize.
GOV. SCOTT WALKER: Now, some have questioned why we have to reform collective bargaining.
BILL MOYERS: Taking away workers’ collective bargaining rights, that had long been an ALEC goal. A candid video caught Scott Walker talking about it with one of his financial backers, the billionaire businesswoman Diane Hendricks.
GOV. SCOTT WALKER: Well, we’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is, we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions.
DIANE HENDRICKS: Right.
GOV. SCOTT WALKER: Because you just divide and conquer.
BILL MOYERS: Despite an extraordinary public outcry and after a brief but intense political struggle, Walker’s anti-collective-bargaining measures became state law.
JOHN NICHOLS: It was ALEC’s ideas, ALEC’s values, that permeated the bill and undid almost 50 years—more than 50 years of collective bargaining law in Wisconsin.
BILL MOYERS: But again, remember, this isn’t just about one state. It’s about every state. Take Arizona. It’s practically an ALECsubsidiary. One report this year found that 49 of the state’s 90 legislators are members. And two-thirds of the Republican leadership are on ALEC task forces. And, of course, the governor, Jan Brewer, was an ALEC member, too. So, not surprising, Arizona is among the states passing ALEC-inspired laws to privatize education at taxpayer expense. And no surprise again, Arizona is also getting ALEC-like laws to limit corporate liability.
REPORTER: Police will also be able to ask anyone to prove their legal status.
BILL MOYERS: And Arizona, you’ll recall, made news in 2010 with a law allowing police to stop someone for looking Hispanic and detaining them if they weren’t carrying proper papers. So, it probably won’t shock you to learn that Arizona’s immigration law also inspired an ALECmodel, a version of which was passed in five other states.
STATE REP. STEVE FARLEY: All of us here are very familiar withALEC and the influence that ALEC has with many of the members here.
BILL MOYERS: ALEC’s nomination of Arizona proved too much for State Representative Steve Farley.
STATE REP. STEVE FARLEY: I just want to emphasize, it’s fine for corporations to be involved in the process. Corporations have the right to present their arguments. But they don’t have the right to do it secretly. They don’t have the right to lobby people and not register as lobbyists. They don’t have the right to take people away on trips, convince them of it, and send them back here, and then nobody has seen what’s really gone on and how that legislator has gotten that idea and where is it coming from.
BILL MOYERS: Farley has introduced a bill to force legislators to disclose their ALEC ties, just as the law already requires them to do with any lobbyist.
STATE REP. STEVE FARLEY: All I’m asking in the ALECAccountability Act is to make sure that all of those expenses are reported as if they are lobbying expenses, and all those gifts that legislators received are reported as if they are receiving the gifts from lobbyists, so the public can find out and make up their own minds about who is influencing what.
BILL MOYERS: Steve Farley’s bill has gone nowhere. ALEC, on the other hand, is still everywhere, still hiding in plain sight. Watch for it coming soon to a statehouse near you.
AMY GOODMAN: The United States of ALEC, a special report by Bill Moyers. It will air this weekend on Moyers & Company. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.