One month after the 2010 GOP electoral sweep, which saw Republicans grab 650 state legislative seats from the Democrats, gaining “trifecta” control (both houses of the legislature and the governorship) in Wisconsin and 20 other states, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and a score of other Republican legislators from the Badger State went to the nation’s capital to consider their mission. “Never has the time been so right” for advancing the conservative agenda in the states, declared the legislator chosen to lead the group, Louisiana Republican Noble Ellington.
The hundreds of politicians who partied at the Washington Grand Hyatt Hotel did not come to define an agenda for privatizing education, breaking unions, deregulating major industries, eliminating liability and tort law protections, or erecting voter ID restrictions. The agenda had already been written behind closed doors by the group that was hosting the newly empowered Republican legislative leaders: the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Featured speakers at that “States and Nation Policy Summit” included Republican stars such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
For almost four decades ALEC had, under the watchful eye of the most powerful corporate lobbyists and conservative donors in the country, drafted “model legislation” with a purpose defined by one of the group’s heroes, economist Milton Friedman, who argued: “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real changes. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”
As the new cash crop of conservative legislators returned to the states and took charge in the first weeks of 2011, they had their “crisis” — fiscal shortfalls in recession-ravaged states — and the impossibly extreme model legislation that ALEC had “lying around” became “politically inevitable.” Legislatures across the country raced to introduce and pass complex measures attacking labor rights, consumer and environmental protections and voting rights.
Advanced by ALEC members such as Fitzgerald and the group’s Wisconsin chairman, Joint Finance Committee Co-chair Robin Vos, R-Burlington, the agenda was rubber-stamped by the Wisconsin Legislature and signed into law by an ALEC “alumnus,” Gov. Scott Walker.
The model legislation that has so influenced the political debates of 2011, the resolutions that guide the priorities of ALEC’s approximately 2,000 member legislators, and details of the arrangements linking those legislators on issue-focused task forces with corporate lawyers and lobbyists have historically been the closely kept secret of an exceptionally well-funded and well-connected conservative group. ALEC likes to portray itself in benignly wonkish terms as “the nation’s largest, nonpartisan, individual public-private membership association of state legislators.”
But ALEC has now been exposed. A leak to organizers of protests at ALEC’s Spring Task Force gathering in Cincinnati made more than 800 documents, leadership lists and explanatory details available to The Nation magazine and the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy. Experts on public policy — including Joel Rogers and Laura Dresser of the University of Wisconsin’s Center on Wisconsin Strategy and Julie Underwood, the dean of the UW’s School of Education — have reviewed and analyzed the documentation. Their assessments are been published on The Nation’s website and appear in the current issue of the magazine. Those articles and the leaked documents can also be found on the Center for Media and Democracy’s “ALEC Exposed” website.
The documents provide an inside view of the priorities of ALEC’s corporate board members and billionaire benefactors (including tea party funders Charles and David Koch). Businesses and corporate-funded foundations pay handsomely to be linked with legislators. The corporate donors help write and approve model legislation and resolutions developed by ALEC task forces on issues ranging from education to health policy to public safety to elections.
The documents challenge the notion that ALEC — which was formed in 1973 by the losers of the great political battles of the 1960s, including veterans of the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign and similarly quixotic ventures — is in any real sense the nonpartisan organization it claims to be. There are a handful of Democratic members of ALEC, mostly conservative hangers-on from Southern states. Of the 103 ALEC state chairs, task force leaders and board members listed in the documents, only one is a Democrat.
No matter what their partisan affiliations may be, however, the real loyalty of ALEC members is to the corporate agenda that is spelled out in the model legislation and resolutions at the “ALEC Exposed” website. The website and the articles in The Nation’s special issue do not merely reveal how ALEC operates, however. They reveal another avenue, in addition to spending on election campaigns and openly lobbying, by which corporations are defining — and winning — the great policy debates of our time.
“Dozens of corporations are investing millions of dollars a year to write business-friendly legislation that is being made into law in statehouses coast to coast, with no regard for the public interest,” says Bob Edgar of Common Cause. “This is proof positive of the depth and scope of the corporate reach into our democratic processes.”
That’s not the only proof. After he returned from last fall’s ALEC session in Washington, Scott Fitzgerald announced that what really struck him about the gathering was the growing enthusiasm for using the legislative process to attack unions. Fitzgerald said he was “surprised how much momentum there was around that discussion” of enacting anti-labor laws. Barely a month later, he and ALEC alumnus Scott Walker were making headlines with a plan to eliminate collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin’s state, county and municipal employees and the state’s teachers.
John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. He wrote several of the articles for The Nation issue on ALEC.