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.
- “America’s largest”: This is a large organization – no lie in that. According to the Center for Media and Democracy’s ALEC Exposed website, it “boasts 2,000 legislative members and 300 or more corporate members.”
- “Nonpartisan”: Far from it. Again according to the ALEC Exposed site, it currently has only one Democrat out of 104 legislators in leadership positions within its organization. And with long-term backing by many criminal corporations and representation from the right-wing Koch Industries on its governing board, ALEC is highly weighted towards corporate criminal causes and directions.
- “Voluntary”: In a sense it is, in that no one is forced to be a member of it. Yet the 300 or more corporate members and corporate funders who kick in the money for it feel it is something they need to be a part of to make legislation stick.
- “Dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets, and federalism”: True – but with a big “but.” This is a group run by corporate interests who have very specific agenda items they want to pass. Much of those “limited government” items included in its agenda include legislation recommendations that ALEC’s members develop to limit the power of government to protect citizens in a wide number of ways, from the abusive power of agribusiness to the stranglehold of telecommunications giants over the concept of “net neutrality.” Free markets are encouraged – but again at the expense of the average citizen.
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:
- civil justice
- commerce, insurance and economic development
- communications and technology
- criminal justice reform
- education and workforce development
- energy, environment and agriculture
- federalism and international relations
- health and human services
- tax and fiscal policy
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:
- An estimated $3 million a year in public funds is used to send legislators to attend ALEC meetings, according to one recent analysis on a site called ALECWatch.org.
- A significant number of legislators have travel and accommodation expenses at the meetings covered by ALEC and yet these are not disclosed as gifts.
- Certain costs at and related to the meetings are openly heavily discounted, such as group travel services and child daycare.
- Where legal, some legislators used their campaign funds to help send them to the events.
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:
- A wonderful stay in a luxury setting often fully paid for but at least at heavily discounted rates.
- Access to privately sponsored parties and entertainment activities that are never documented and stay completely off the books.
- Access to model legislation they can readily modify to submit to their own state legislative committees. With others doing the advance work for them, they look good at home afterwards by clearly having worked hard while toiling away far from home.
- Access to corporations and lobbyists who will likely help support the campaigns of these legislators, especially when they see them carry their proposed initiatives back home to their individual states – and then get them passed at the local level.
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:
- Altria/Philip Morris USA benefits from ALEC’s newest tobacco legislation – an extremely narrow tax break for moist tobacco that would make fruit-flavored tobacco products cheaper and more attractive to youngsters.
- Health insurance companies such as Humana and Golden Rule Insurance (UnitedHealthcare) benefit directly from ALEC’s model bills, such as the Health Savings Account bill that just passed in Wisconsin.
- Tobacco firms such as Reynolds and pharmaceutical firms such as Bayer benefit directly from ALEC tort reform measures that make it harder for Americans to sue when injured by dangerous products.
- The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) benefits directly from the anti-immigrant legislation introduced in Arizona and other states that requires expanded incarceration and housing of immigrants, along with other bills from ALEC’s crime task force. (While the CCA has stated that it left ALEC in late 2010 after years of membership on the criminal justice task force and even co-chairing it, its prison privatization bills remain ALEC “models.”)
- The Connections Academy, a large online education corporation and co-chair of the education task force, benefits from ALEC measures to privatize public education and promote private online schools.
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:
- In agriculture, major agribusiness concerns such as Cargill, Bayer (one of the top GMO food companies in the world and now Monsanto’s new corporate parent, in addition to its more-widely-known pharmaceutical concerns), J.R. Simplot and more help ALEC guide the way for legislators:
- Resolution on Country of Origin Labeling (a.k.a. COOL): Using the mantra of “free markets,” ALEC is recommending for “the United States Congress to develop and pass a legislative solution that will build markets for U.S. products at home and overseas rather than implement additional regulations and requirements for our meat producers and processors,” such as the Country of Origin Labeling requirement. The logic is that COOL is bad for business, and this is clearly stated in ALEC’s materials. There is no consideration at all given to the importance to consumers of knowing such things.
- Pre-emption of Local Agriculture Laws Act: This law would prohibit “enactment or enforcement of local measures to regulate agricultural seed, flower seed and vegetable seed or products of agricultural seed, flower seed and vegetable seed.” It declares that regulations of any of this must be at the state level. The GMO companies will benefit from this one, in the case that individual cities or counties may want to block their use.
- Right to Farm Act: One of the ways states and local laws have attempted to deal with unwanted expansion of GMO crops and related farm products such as Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides is by identifying them as “nuisances” and then regulating them. This proposed law, which again uses the concept of free markets to justify itself, attempts to block those kinds of regulations. Examples of the clauses embedded in this act that support this are as follows:
- Section B of the proposed legislation: “A farm or farm operation shall not be found to be a public or private nuisance if the farm or farm operation existed before a change in the land use or occupancy of land within one mile of the boundaries of the farm or farm operation and if before that change in land use or occupancy of land the farm or farm operation would not have been considered a nuisance.”
- From Section C of the proposed legislation: “A farm or farm operation … shall not be found to be a public or private nuisance as a result of … adoption of new technology.”In both cases these block laws from being passed to regulate farms that might change to GMO usage, for example, because what they did before was okay. The law effectively blocks the ability to regulate major issues regarding how farms operate or are being used.
- State Pesticide Prevention Act: According to ALEC’s summary of this legislation, it is “designed to ensure the safety of America’s food supply through the pre-emption of city, town, county, etc., pesticide ordinances.” It once again uses words few could argue with (“the safety of America’s food supply”) to justify blocking the ability of any government agencies other than those at the state level to regulate pesticide use. At the state level, presumably, ALEC would have more power to control those regulations than in fighting against all the individual ordinances that might come up.
- Proposed “model legislation” in other areas includes the following:
- Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act: Among other things,this “limits the authority of municipalities to own and operate telecommunications and advanced telecommunication and cable television services to a municipality’s inhabitants.” Some of ALEC’s good corporate friends advising on this include AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Cox Communications.
- State Withdrawal from Regional Climate Initiatives: Using the justification that “forcing business, industry and food producers to reduce carbon emissions through government mandates and cap-and-trade policies under consideration for the regional climate initiative will increase the cost of doing business, push companies to do business with other states or nations and increase consumer costs for electricity, fuel and food” and that “simply reducing carbon emissions in the State of ____ will not have a significant impact on international carbon reduction,” the law states “be it resolved, that the legislature of the State of ___ urges the Governor to withdraw [state] from the regional climate initiatives.” Doubtless, ALEC’s corporate pals ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell Oil helped make this really easy for legislators to take home with them.
- An Act Relating to Online Lodging Marketplaces: Companies such as Airbnb are “enabling more Americans to earn extra income from their homes and investment properties through short-term and vacation rentals,” and “American travelers and family vacationers are saving money by renting fully-furnished homes instead of hotel rooms,” according to ALEC’s proposed legislation summary. And yet “this new market is encountering resistance from local governments, in the form of zoning restrictions and prohibitions that prevent homeowners from using their residences for short-term rentals.” Using the same arguments about free markets, the proposed law would block local governments from regulating short-term rentals in any way. This might seem like a good thing to some, but the inability to pass such local regulations has resulted in drastic changes in city housing costs, a far lower mix of local residents who have a long-term personal investment in the areas they live in and the driving out of long-term smaller restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses that can no longer work there. It is not clear if Airbnb is a direct sponsor of ALEC, but one can assume some company like that is behind this legislation.
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:
- Arizona: In SB 1142, the State Senate voted to add “rioting” to the crime statute and expand state racketeering laws to allow police to seize the assets of protesters. Mercifully, this law failed to pass in the entire legislature.
- Colorado: SB 17-035 makes obstructing or tampering with oil and gas equipment punishable with up to 18 months in prison and/or $100,000 in fines. Pending.
- Georgia: SB-160 elevates the blocking of any highway, street, sidewalk or other public passage a “high and aggravated misdemeanor.” Passed.
- Indiana: SB 285 authorizes police to remove protestors, apparently even if doing so in a Constitutionally protected peaceable assembly. Pending.
- Iowa: SF 111 upgrades the crime of protesting on a highway to a felony with up to five years in prison. Pending.
- Minnesota: HF322 allows the government to force protestors to pay the costs of the policing of unlawful demonstrations. HF55 raises obstruction of highways to the level of “gross misdemeanor.” Pending.
- North Dakota: HB 1426 creates different classes of penalties for rioting. HB1304 prohibits the use of masks, hoods or face coverings for concealment during “the commission of a criminal offense.” HB 1293, likely influenced by the Standing Rock protests, makes it a crime to trespass a critical infrastructure facility, with a fine of $1,000 or six months in prison; it also allows for anyone who vandalizes infrastructure to be charged with a felony punishable by a $100,000 fine or 10 years in prison. All three have been passed.
- North Carolina: HB 249 allows charging any person who willfully “impedes or disrupts the regular course of business” with the felony crime of “economic terrorism.” Pending. Another bill, also pending, would make it a crime to heckle lawmakers.
- Oregon: SB 540 requires community colleges or public universities to expel any student convicted of rioting. Pending.
- South Dakota: SB 176 authorizes the commissioner of school and public lands to prohibit groups of 20+ people from “congregating” on public lands. Makes obstructing highways a Class 2 misdemeanor. Passed.
- Tennessee: SB 944 exempts drivers from liability in the event they hit a protestor who is obstructing traffic. Pending.
- Washington: SB 5009 creates a new classification of “economic disruption” for obstructing passageways of trains and other infrastructure. The original designation of “economic terrorism” for the same newly designated crime was mercifully changed. Pending.
- Wisconsin: Assembly Bill 299 provides for “disciplinary sanctions for anyone under an institution’s jurisdiction who engages in violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud, or other disorderly conduct that interferes with the free expression of others.” Among other things, this covers using the idea that free speech of others must be protected by stifling the free speech of protestors.
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.