Friday, May 25, 2012

The Veil is Lifted on ALEC

Up until a month or so ago, I hadn’t heard of an organization called ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council).  According to their website, ALEC’s objective is to “advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public”.  This certainly reads as a noble mission and until 4 weeks ago it hadn’t really been questioned whatsoever.  In fact, most people had not heard about ALEC. 

But all that changed when member companies Coca-Cola, Mars, Wendy’s and Kraft started withdrawing their membership of ALEC following the Treyvon Martin shooting.  ALEC is a staunch supporter of the infamous “stand your grand law”, which is a law in Florida that permits individuals from shooting someone in self-defense.  The reaction to their withdrawal is what I find especially striking.

On the one side you have right wing pundits at the WallStreet Journal and Fox News strongly defending ALEC’s ambitions and thereby criticizing the companies for withdrawing their membership. On the other side, you have left wing groups criticizing these organizations for taking so long to withdraw and only doing so because of the potential PR backlash that would ensue if they didn’t. 

But the criticism goes much deeper than that.  The stand your ground law really opened a can of worms to a more sinister secret of ALEC. Behind closed doors, ALEC brings together executives of the largest companies and state legislators to draft legislation that promotes the free market, limited government ideology of the organization. Once drafted and accepted by members of ALEC, they are proposed to the state senate by the state legislator who is essentially a member of ALEC.  The fascinating part of this though is that this process has been occurring for decades with no public knowledge.  Al Jazeera uncovered that an National Rifle Association (NFL) gun law was approved through ALEC and subsequently pushed through state legislatures.  It provided a venue for the NRA to present their law. 

The recent revelation of ALEC hints at the underlying objectives of what this organization is trying to do.  The general public is excluded from this conversation, especially since the media has been unable to figure out what this organization has been doing for over four decades now.  ALEC calls itself a charity and by law it cannot engage in more than 20% of their activities towards lobbying, which comes across as amusing when we consider that ALEC’s primary purpose is to draft legislation to benefit its members.  Common Cause argues that what ALEC does is pure lobbying because they are essentially encouraging public policy makers to pass laws that they themselves design.  Common Cause claims that they have thousands of pages of internal records that prove beyond doubt that this is a lobbying organization.  This would mean that they are breaking the law because they’ve denoted themselves a charity to evade federal taxes.  The Guardian noted:

"Alec boasts about how frequently its bills are introduced in state legislatures to show its influence over the legislative process," the complaint notes. In one annual scorecard, Alec's executive director, Samuel Brunelli, told corporate backers that, with a success rate higher than 20%, "Alec is a good investment. Nowhere else can you get a return that high."

Rashad from Common Cause made the point crystal clear on AlJazeera when he explained that by withdrawing from ALEC over the public eye on the Florida gun law, the corporations like Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart were getting their cake and eating it too in that they were supporting an organization that was doing some questionable behaviour yet also helped push policies that were in their best interests.  Only because they recognized the public backlash that could ensue did they withdraw.  One can conclude that they likely wouldn’t have withdrawn if this didn’t happen.  Is this social activism in action or merely the tip of the iceberg of a host of activities like this that we just don’t now about? 

Fox News, WSJ and right-wing pundits argue that there is nothing wrong with this. To them, this is democracy in action with private sector businesses engaging in their right as active and legal citizens to voice their opinion by using ALEC as a mechanism through which to advocate certain policies.  What drives me most crazy is the rather pervasive belief, however genuine, that pushing for limited government and free enterprise policies is analogous to the very freedoms to which we all aspire.  This is the veil that many push on voters because of the perceived implications for job creation.  But it’s organizations like ALEC, the ridiculous super-pacs that Stephen Colbert rightly mocks and the more general pervasiveness of the private sector to push the above-like policies that do the exact opposite.  And it’s still unclear to me whether these organizations really don’t understand market failures or whether they are aware but maintain the rhetoric to prevent the public from catching on. 

Unfortunately, the news about ALEC has all but faded at the time of this posting.  This is disappointing because while it illuminated the destructive effects such an organization can have on a democratic society, a lack of persistence in calling out organizations like this likely won't change anything.