Lobbying is an old tradition here in Washington D.C. It is expected that when your public service ends, you will be handsomely rewarded by offering advice and access to senators and other legislators. It is the way of the world.
Yet, some people looked at this system and said “it’s good, but can we make it better?” It’s nice to be able to influence legislators when a new bill is crafted, or even to help create a bill, but the US is a big place. It’s going to take forever to wait around until a bill comes around that suits your interests. What if you could actually create bills to help you, and then roll out those bills proactively across the US?
Enter ALEC. ALEC is an interesting beast, an evolved form of the traditional lobby. Alec is not a lobby group. It is not a PR firm. It is better than both of these things combined. It is… a legislative council!
Basically, ALEC is a forum for legislators to meet corporations. ALEC is a forum dedicated to “Limited Government, Free Markets, Federalism”. Basically, ALEC is for people who think that corporations are good, and regulations and social programs are bad. So far, so good.
The genius part of ALEC was not in supporting corporations, or in bringing together legislators that believe that the only good regulation is a dead regulation; it was in bringing the two together.
ALEC’s membership is mostly made up of two groups: corporations (that want laws passed that favor them) and legislators (that want money to get re-elected). One of the key behind ALEC’s success was the focus on free markets and no regulations, which essentially clearly advertised who should be in or not. That was brilliant, but not particularly manipulative. It was still enough to swell ALEC’s membership rolls to 2,000 legislators, though. That’s about 1/3 of all sitting legislators, not a bad achievement.
What made ALEC interesting, though, was to go beyond bringing together corporations and legislators and innovate a new way to influence and manipulate. It was called “model legislation.”
The concept of model legislation is a straightforward idea. Most legislation is not actually passed at the federal level – think about it, we have one federal government but 50 state governments. Most laws are actually state laws, not federal ones. So one of the main agendas of ALEC is to showcase bills – bills that were crafted by ALEC members, carefully vetted by its own experts, and then given to the legislative members for them to take back to their states. The whole idea is that ALEC members do the work once, craft a model bill that suits its members, and then that bill finds its way, with very minor medications, across many states.
In 2011, for example, ALEC decided to focus on voter ID laws. Voter ID laws basically force citizens to present specific IDs to be allowed to vote. This was a rather strange focus at first blush for ALEC: these laws were enacted as a way to fight voter fraud, which was not a major problem and hasn’t been for decades. So why focus on voter ID laws?
The founder of ALEC was Paul Weyrich (who also founded the Heritage Foundation). One of his core beliefs was that a loud minority was far stronger than a silent majority. “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” In that spirit, ALEC (which mostly represents Republican legislators) decided that one of its important initiatives would be voter ID laws. It introduced ‘model bills’ for voter ID laws, and began pounding the drums for these types of laws as necessary to combat voter fraud. These model bills were then taken up by various members, and then introduced in 14 states, often with no modifications from the original ‘model bill’.
Was there real voter fraud problem? Not really. Most states that have passed these laws have failed to turn up any major voter fraud.
The bills were useful, though, in keeping certain types of voters (the elderly, students, the poor) from the polls. Most of these constituents vote Democrat, and since ALEC is almost entirely Republican, it was not a hard sell to implement those voters laws. What is interesting is that, without ALEC, Republicans would have had to draft laws in each state, introduce them, and fight for them individually. With ALEC as a coordinating hub, not only were the laws drafted once and passed many times, but the fact that so many states were considering those laws became a self-fulfilling prophecy – since so many states were considering those laws, there must be an underlying problem, right? That is how voter fraud became a ‘problem’, and voter laws the solution, for 14 states across the country.
ALEC is actually pretty good at creating these ‘model bills’. They introduce around 1,000 ‘model bills’ a year. Around 18% of these become laws. This is not a trivial amount. So what kind of bills is ALEC introducing?
Most of the bills that ALEC sponsors are a direct reflection of its corporate membership. CAC, for example, is one of the large sponsors of ALEC. CAC is a private prison company, so naturally it likes large prison populations, so ALEC has sponsored several laws that aim at growing the prison population: three strikes law, mandatory minimum laws, and the so-called ‘truth in sentencing laws’ all serve to grow the prison population, and all of these have been (and are) encouraged by ALEC.
Another frequent area of attack for ALEC is the EPA.
The EPA focuses on protecting the environment, and as such is a thorn in the sides of many ALEC corporate members. So, starting in 2009, ALEC began a concerted attack on the EPA. The main strategy was for ALEC members to attack the EPA as creating ‘job-destroying’ regulations, and to introduce legislation that could delay or stop the EPA from passing or enforcing anti-pollution laws. ALEC introduced legislation that would force power away from the EPA and towards the states (which can be more easily influenced by ALEC), or legislation that would create ‘councils’ with corporate representations that would control EPA enforcements in the states.
The basic idea of most of these bills focus on taking power away from the EPA, and allowing ALEC membership corporations to influence, delay, or cancel EPA regulations that would affect them. Some of the gems in several ALEC bills, for example, concern using the frameworks and arguments of Bjorn Lomborg, a political science professor at the University of Aarhus, in Denmark, who has been a vocal opponent of climate change (despite never having published any scientific papers on the subject). This makes a lot more sense when you consider that ALEC’s sponsors include Exxon, Koch Industries, and other companies that have a strong interest in defeating any climate change legislation.
ALEC has many other areas of focus. As one might expect, privatization is catnip to the members of ALEC – corporations get to manage public work, and politicians can claim savings and efficiency gains from privatization. ALEC has actually created a game, Publicopoly, for how to outsource everything from public transportation (which becomes, well, private transportation?) to environmental control.
The frameworks used by ALEC in privatization model bills have been introduced, almost letter for letter, in Virginia, Oregon, Maryland, and Kansas, for example.
Manipulation like ALEC’s works best when it is below the radar. Citizens, in general, have an aversion to being manipulated, and so a group like ALEC works best when voters are generally unaware of what the group does.
When Scott Walker became governor of Wisconsin, in 2011, he sponsored a veritable deluge of bills, everything from anti-union legislation to voter ID laws to a massive pushback against environmental legislation. It was an ALEC-inspired tsunami, but it was too obvious. A professor named William Cronon posted a personal blog arguing that that the legislative tsunami might be inspired by (at the time obscure) group known as the American Legislative Exchange Council. Immediately, GOP lawmaker in Wisconsin created a firestorm by demanding all of Cronon’s emails in an effort to paint him as a dangerous partisan hack. The effort failed, but it highlighted how annoyed legislators could get when the profile of groups like ALEC gets raised.
Since then, ALEC has had to deal with a fair bit of bad news. Apart from the Wisconsin debacle, ALEC was a big proponent of stand-your-ground laws, not a popular position these days. More importantly, various folks became a lot more aware of ALEC. With increased scrutiny came public backlash. Some corporate sponsors publicly stepped away from ALEC, such as Coca-Cola or Proctor and Gamble, but the likes of Exxon and Koch are of course going to remain on board until the very end. Various journalists began to track ALEC and its work, and web sites started to appear to document its work.
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ALEC is an interesting beast. It is not a lobby group, not a corporate trade association, not a branch of the GOP. It is… an evolved version of all these things, coupled with some innovative concepts such as model bills that make it very powerful and very, very manipulative. Whether it can sustain itself, now that the spotlight is slowly finding it, remains to be seen, but the core concept will survive – it is too good not to. ALEC will spawn son-of-ALEC, which will have a more obscure name and less easy-to-guess agenda. There are ways to counter ALEC-like manipulations, but they are fairly complex, and deserve their own posts. For now, expect to see a lot more ‘model legislation’ making its way through our state senates over the coming years…