Earth Day, conservatives have been known to complain,
always brings out the weirdos. This year's celebration was no exception. "Absent
from the debate [on global warming] is the discussion of human ingenuity and our
ability to adapt to our environment; when the temperature increases, we turn on
the air conditioner," ran one line of thinking that went out over the fax lines
in late April. "More people die from cold temperatures than heat: '... global
warming could actually save lives.'"
Thus spake ALEC, a driven 29-year-old who is quite conservative and
rather rich. With friends in high places, ALEC throws big parties, likes to get
around, and is full of ideas. Never heard of the American Legislative Exchange
Council? That's just the way ALEC likes it. As obscure as it is influential, the
council bills itself as the "nation's largest bipartisan, individual membership
association of state legislators." The press, too, tends to describe the
organization in those terms. But in point of fact, ALEC represents corporate
interests, and it has an impressive stake in a high-stakes game. This year,
approximately 150,000 bills will be considered by the 50 state legislatures, and
about 25 percent of them will become law -- more than 75 times the number enacted
by Congress. Collectively, these laws will profoundly affect the lives of tens of
millions of Americans.
Special-interest groups have always known this and are already heavily
invested in state politics. According to a new report by the Center for Public
Integrity, the number of state lobbyists dwarfs the number of state legislators
six-to-one. What's more, these lobbyists spent more than $565 million in 2000
alone. So it should be no surprise that big corporations, which have
traditionally plowed their money and muscle into the federal arena, have
increasingly realized that they too must play ball at the state level. ALEC is
their pinch hitter.
How does ALEC work? The council connects corporations to state
legislatures via conferences and forums. Under the aegis of "legislative
exchange," these gatherings allow corporations access and influence for which
they'd otherwise be publicly scrutinized. ALEC also produces reams of model
legislation -- drafts that meet the needs of ALEC's corporate allies and that
legislators can send to their statehouse floors, with or without amendment.
The organization's reach is impressive: More than one-third of state
legislators are ALEC members, and about 100 hold senior leadership positions.
Nine sitting governors and more than 80 members of Congress either pay dues or
are alumni, including Republicans Dennis Hastert of Illinois, Tom DeLay of Texas,
and Don Nickles of Oklahoma. ALEC doesn't publicly release its membership list
but, according to spokesman Bob Adams, about 65 percent of its members are
Republicans and 35 percent Democrats. ALEC's $6 million budget -- which pays for 30
staffers in prime Washington office space -- is mostly provided by large
corporations (Enron included) and right-wing foundations, the Lynde and Harry
Bradley Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation among them.
ALEC specializes in nothing if not the intertwining of private and public
power: Each of its issue-based "task forces" is co-chaired by a "public-sector
chair" (a state legislator) and a "private-sector chair" (a corporate executive);
similarly, the council has a "national board" of elected officials and a "private
enterprise board" of business leaders. But the organization's real ingenuity is
its exploitation of a deep vulnerability in the nation's political system: State
legislatures tend to function only part time. Only seven states have full-time
state legislatures; in six states the legislature convenes just every other year;
and in 38 states, legislators have no paid staff.
If you're a politician looking to sponsor a bill, but your time and resources
are limited and you only meet with your colleagues once every few months, ALEC
provides one-stop shopping. As Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson
said of his days attending ALEC conferences in the 1970s, "Myself, I always loved
going to these meetings because 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."
Legislators who might otherwise gain little or no national distinction are able
to do so within ALEC. It connects them to VIPs and strokes their egos by handing
out "Legislator of the Year" awards.
Alec didn't begin life as a corporate-interest group. Launched
in 1973 by conservative activists and politicians such as Paul Weyrich, Jesse
Helms, Jack Kemp, and Henry Hyde, ALEC began as an organ of the New Right.
Liberal activists, its founders believed, had built a network of idea mills at
the state level; conservatives had to do the same. ("I always look at what the
enemy is doing," Weyrich said at the time, "and if they're winning, copy it.")
ALEC was -- and, according to its literature, still is -- to be guided by
Jeffersonian principles of devolution. For its first two decades, however, social
issues such as abortion dominated most of its work. It wasn't until the 1990s
that ALEC was almost entirely transformed into a corporate ramrod.
Today, however, ALEC channels most of its firepower into the
antiregulatory, anti-environmental fight. There's its model Economic Liberty
Resolution, which calls for the creation of a "Joint Legislative Committee on
Economic Freedom for the purpose of identifying legal and regulatory barriers to
private investment and entrepreneurship, and proposing legislation on such other
actions as may be necessary to remove such barriers." The Prevailing Wage Repeal
Act proposes the elimination of "all laws which require administratively
determined employee compensation rates, including wages, salaries and benefits."
Another model bill would "oppose the federal government's setting aside of funds
in order to acquire more land." And a measure deceptively titled the Civil Rights
Act would void "all set-aside contracts and affirmative action programs" targeted
at "any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or
Perhaps the McDonald's Corporation's Ed Conklin, who is private-sector chair
of the Commerce and Economic Development Task Force, has convinced a few
legislators of the merits of the Workplace Responsibility Act, which "requires
that employees show that their drug and alcohol use did not cause a workplace
accident" -- as opposed to the typical requirement, which ALEC deems an "impossible
burden," that employers prove such use did cause an accident. (That, after
all, assumes the employee innocent until proven guilty.)
ALEC may be nominally devoted to Jeffersonian devolution, but principle
apparently has its limits. In its analysis of the "living-wage" laws, for
instance, ALEC declares that "state legislatures need the power to preempt local
governments from enacting their own wage laws." And ALEC's model Kyoto Climate
Change Protocol Act "prohibits the proposal or promulgation of state regulations
intended to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases" prior to U.S. ratification of
Kyoto. So much for states' rights.
These are not just debating points whose inconsistencies might be of passing
interest. Rather, a good number of ALEC's deeply flawed "models" are becoming law.
ALEC claims that state assemblies enacted more than 450 pieces of its "model
legislation" in the 1999 and 2000 legislative sessions. And as the pace of state
legislating continues to quicken, so too will legislators' needs for precooked
bills. "State battles are more difficult to fight but in a way more essential,"
asserts Andy Gussert, national director of the State Environmental Resource
Center. "Major activity at the state level has significantly increased in the last
10 to 15 years."
Success does have a tendency to go to one's head, and ALEC's case
is no exception. In the last year or so, the organization has involved itself far
more aggressively in partisan politics. Last September, ALEC's executive
director, Duane Parde, sent letters to members of North Carolina's state
legislature urging them not to raise taxes. "The people of North Carolina are
already overtaxed," Parde wrote. "In this time of economic uncertainty, reason
and justice demand that you not add to the people's burden." In May, Parde
blasted Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle for moving too slowly
on President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. And in its strangest spasm of
all, ALEC weighed in on the presidential election showdown in Florida. "ALEC
Offers 'Hats Off' to Florida's Courageous State Legislature," the press release
trumpeted after that state body slid its 25 electoral college votes into Bush's
Is this kind of activity legitimate for a nonprofit organization that
didn't check the lobbying clause on its most recent tax forms? It's hard to say,
because almost all of what ALEC does is craft and promote legislation and provide
spaces for corporations to press political flesh. Some nonprofits, if they elect to
do so, can spend a portion of their resources backing and attacking legislation.
ALEC claims it doesn't -- but then what was Parde doing attacking a tax-increase
bill in North Carolina? Although ALEC seems due for closer scrutiny by the
Internal Revenue Service (as well as state ethics boards), lobbying disclosure
laws dramatically vary at the state level, and it's incumbent on politicians
themselves to classify gifts and expenses. It's impossible to generalize whether
or not ALEC members do so appropriately. But one thing's for certain: If the
politicians who attend ALEC conferences couldn't travel to them on public
dollars -- that is, if its conferences and forums were considered lobbying
events -- key ALEC functions would be wiped out. As someone familiar with the
organization said, "The totality of what they do is lobby. It's a self-sustaining
ALEC denies the charge. "We don't lobby," Adams insists. "We don't introduce
legislation at the state level. We just don't do that. We educate people and
inform ideas. ... We are a tool for state legislators."
One wonders who the tools really are in ALEC's questionable game.