July 13, 2017
While the U.S. Federal Government stumbles to get much of anything accomplished, there are other nationwide entities that are turning out to be remarkably successful in crafting and passing legislation. These entities are non-elected and are not working in support of the citizens of the United States.
Photo by Swiss Truth, CC
And these entities – corporate lobbying groups of a sort – may not always be that easy to identify. Their actions are a different matter, though.
The trick that allows these entities to be so effective is that they operate by working at the state rather than the federal government level. They provide model legislation that is copied from state to state, with minor modifications, and then implemented at the state level. They are also often funded by large corporate lobbying groups, and thanks to Supreme Court decisions like the Citizens United case, corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money highjacking our government. Further, the legislation those lobbying groups sponsor is easily embedded into state-by-state agendas, whereas it is nearly impossible for individual American to get vital new legislation considered.
The way one can spot what they are doing is in two parts: They operate most successfully at the state level rather than the federal government level, and their work shows up in a flurry of nearly identical and/ or highly related legislation being passed across the country in a short time.
The organization that is the biggest thug in all of this is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). On its website (alec.org), it describes itself and its role somewhat boldly:
“The American Legislative Exchange Council is America’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism. Comprised of nearly one-quarter of the country’s state legislators and stakeholders from across the policy spectrum, ALEC members represent more than 60 million Americans and provide jobs to more than 30 million people in the United States.”
Careful examination of the statement reveals some truths and some intentionally self-serving lies that are important to highlight.
As noted by Dr. Gordon Lafer, of the University of Oregon’s Labor Education & Research Center and author of the 2017 book The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time, during Trillions’ interview with him from the May 2017 issue:
“What ALEC does, in brief, they meet several times a year in resorts, where they sit in committees where they’re composed half of state legislators and half of corporate lobbyists. They write model bills, which have to be approved by an all-corporate board [and] which are then introduced in cookie-cutter fashion in state after state across the country. Which is how you see the same laws popping up in very different places.
“And then the companies which help to write the laws fund those same candidates’ campaigns, fund independent expenditure campaigns on issue ads or candidate ads and fund state-level think tanks that produce white papers and experts to be on TV for those issues. So it’s a very well-coordinated, well-funded, smart, very ambitious 50-state campaign to try to remake a lot of the laws governing economics, governing public services, governing taxation and governing employment.”
Well-coordinated, indeed. The ALEC Exposed website expands on this:
“More than 98% of ALEC’s revenues come from sources other than legislative dues, such as corporations, corporate trade groups, and corporate foundations. Each corporate member pays an annual fee of between $7,000 and $25,000 a year, and if a corporation participates in any of the nine task forces, additional fees apply, from $2,500 to $10,000 each year. ALEC also receives direct grants from corporations, such as $1.4 million from ExxonMobil from 1998-2009. It has also received grants from some of the biggest foundations funded by corporate CEOs in the country, such as: the Koch family Charles G. Koch Foundation, the Koch-managed Claude R. Lambe Foundation, the Scaife family Allegheny Foundation, the Coors family Castle Rock Foundation, to name a few.”
In point of fact, less than 2% of the money that allows ALEC to operate comes from the $50 per year “membership dues” that state legislators pay to be a part of this.
This is government “by the corporations” and “for the corporations” – unlike the way the founding fathers phrased things in the beginning but like much of everything else that happens in the United States these days, unfortunately.
Operationally, how they do this is by placing the corporate members (in many cases corporate lobbyists themselves by profession) together with the elected member representatives to sit on nine separate task forces.
These task forces include the American City County Exchange, a group focusing on items such as transportation, education and economic development, all at the state level but with a single-minded national approach to putting the same policies in across the country – policies including:
One of the amazing things about ALEC’s work is that it accomplishes all of this as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. That allows it to stay tax-exempt and yet receive grants from corporations, foundations and individuals without concern. It further does this by arguing that it is not a lobbying organization because it operates on its own turf and does not directly solicit the legislators to do the corporate world’s bidding. That continues to be challenged by many, including a July 14, 2011, civil complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service by Common Cause arguing that ALEC is actually engaged in lobbying even when it forcefully argues that it is not.
There are other ethical questions of many kinds that affect how ALEC operates. Besides the quasi-lobbying approach that legislators voluntarily subject themselves to, there are the following concerns:
What those legislators get in return for their attendance to ALEC meetings does admittedly include discussion of many issues that matter to some of their constituents. Those constituents are pretty much mostly corporations, which is not exactly what most of us think of as representative government. What the legislators who attend also get for going often include the following:
Is ALEC successful at what they were organized to do? By the sheer number of bills proposed and passed in the United States every year, definitely so. In ALEC’s own words:
“To date, ALEC’s Task Forces have considered, written and approved hundreds of model bills on a wide range of issues, model legislation that will frame the debate today and far into the future. Each year, close to 1,000 bills, based at least in part on ALEC Model Legislation, are introduced into the states. Of these, an average of 20 percent become law.”
That “average of 20 percent” of the bills is a total of 200 laws passed each year based on ALEC’s direct involvement. By comparison, from 2001-2016, a period covering the administrations of Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic President Barack Obama, the U.S. Congress only successfully enacted 195 laws each year on average. Those U.S. government bills were also a mix of both important and relatively inconsequential legislation from the perspective of American corporations – unlike their carefully crafted ALEC-sponsored state-law counterparts.
Beyond the numbers, ALEC’s corporate sponsors and participants have been served well by their work. Consider these “results” – again from the ALEC Exposed website:
There is more to consider from where laws like these came from. The following items are currently among the various important issues ALEC says (on its own website) it is working on:
The issues reflected here are far from the end of ALEC and related organizations’ involvement in setting the stage for a common set of legislations designed to promote the specific goals American corporations, their lobbying friends such as the Koch brothers and politicians of a particular leaning may want to protect.
One of those that emerged since Donald Trump was named the winner in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election was a strangely well-coordinated approach to blocking protests against him and his policies.
Understandably, the placement of someone such as Trump in the position of President, with no governing experience, evidence of high corruption even as a business person, a lack of understanding or respect for the Constitution and questionable mental stability, would bring a few people together to challenge even early on what now is becoming clearer than ever – that the United States has made a terrible mistake. Those people respond with journalism of various kinds, lawsuits and, for many, organized protests.
According to the U.S. Constitution in the First Amendment – the same one also blocking the “making of any law … abridging the freedom of speech” – American citizens are also allowed “the right to peaceably assemble.” Those threatened by that exercise of freedom of speech and peaceable assembly moved in quickly to deal with the matter. Since November 2016, over 26 bills have been introduced to do something to restrict protesting, often – as with the ALEC-driven bills noted above – with very similar language between them.
In Washington State, for example, Senator Doug Ericksen moved quickly to quash protests by calling demonstrators “economic terrorists,” capitalizing on the emotionally charged last word in the phrase. North Dakota took a few months to copy this but passed a bill in March 2017 that turns “economic terrorism” into a new class of crime in the state.
North Dakota also successfully passed a bill that makes it a crime for demonstrators to cover their face. This one most likely was triggered by the large and long-lasting protests in the Standing Rock region regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. Probably not coincidentally, Missouri, Washington, Nebraska, Georgia and Montana are looking at similar laws.
Three states introduced bills that would allow motorists who might “accidentally” hit demonstrators on the roadway to be exempt from charges. These were introduced in Florida and North Dakota on the same day, a particularly strange coincidence. Tennessee followed later with something quite similar.
Beyond those, seven states have introduced so-called “anti-obstruction” bills that increase penalties for those who obstruct traffic while protesting. In Oregon, a once-quite-liberal-leaning state where anti-protest laws might have been enacted, there is now a pending law that would make it mandatory for community colleges or public universities to expel any student convicted of rioting – even if it was not on the grounds of the institution and/or had nothing to do with the institution, regardless of the status of the student in question.
As for details on what is currently pending or has been passed of this kind, the following is a partial listing:
Several other bills that have already failed in passage, such as Florida’s SB 1096, which would exempt motorists from any liability if they hit a protestor obstructing traffic, are not included above but are of course very much part of the same trend.
Image by Jason OX4, CC
Of a list of 26 anti-protest bills submitted within 18 states since the November election, seven have passed, eight have failed and 11 are still pending. Others are popping up every day.
The moves to crush dissent and protests have happened so fast, covered so many issues and appeared in so many states all at once that two independent experts at the United Nations, Maina Kiai and David Kaye, with backgrounds in the freedoms of peaceable assembly and expression, respectively, called for U.S. lawmakers to do something about what they called the “alarming” trend of “undemocratic” bills designed to criminalize what nations worldwide have backed as both legal and a part of basic human rights. In a statement they released together earlier this year, they said:
“From the Black Lives Matter movement to the environmental and Native American movements in opposition to the Dakota Access oil pipeline and the Women’s Marches, individuals and organizations across society have mobilized in peaceful protests, as it is their right under international human rights law and U.S. law.”
Besides these bills, Senate Republicans have recently introduced new rules that make it harder for reporters to interview Senators within the Capitol building.
Fifteen of the bills were sponsored by at least one known ALEC associate. Does this mean ALEC may be behind these bills? It is possible, even if it is not listed on the ALEC website and there has been no confirmation that ALEC has had a direct hand in any of them. After all, when such coincidences show up, the adage “Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” is worthy advice to take.
All of the above raises the question as to what can be done to fight this kind of organized approach to taking over the government of the United States “one state at a time,” as author and University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer described the process. One solution is to fight against the groups’ tax-exempt status at a national level and have them labeled appropriately as the corporate lobbyists they are. A second is to shine a bright light on their actions so more people become aware of what they are doing. Another involves blocking the ability of state legislators to accept any form of compensation from ALEC, even in the form of discounted fees.
A final one – and perhaps one of the most important – is to become both knowledgeable about and active in your own state government’s affairs and then to block organizations like ALEC from taking over while the public sleeps comfortably on the sidelines, falsely assuming their state governments are genuinely looking after the citizens’ best interests before those of corporations.
If we don't stop the criminal corporations from taking over our government, it will be our own fault. Taking democracy for granted means losing it.