There has been a great deal of discussion recently about the role of the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC) in the American political process and in the formation of legislative policies throughout the country. Initially formed in 1973, ALEC has largely operated below the radar in U.S. politics. Officially a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization, ALEC advocates for policy changes in a number of areas and has primarily directed its efforts at influencing state legislators. ALEC also boasts of its 100 “alumni” serving in federal legislative posts and seeks to promote coordination of their policy efforts at the state and federal level through these representatives.
ALEC is not your standard non-profit. It is primarily funded by corporations such as Amoco, Chevron, Shell, Texaco, Coors Brewing, Koch Industries, Nationwide Insurance, Pfizer, National Energy Group, Philip Morris, and R. J. Reynolds. ALEC’s main activities involve pairing industry representatives with legislators to promote pro-corporate policy initiatives and proposing model “fill-in-the-blank” legislation to further its goals. The organization has 9 stated policy areas where they are actively working; state fiscal reform, criminal law & prison reform, tort reform, state & federal relations, health care policy, international trade policy, restoring federalism, transparency in the use of outside attorneys for government litigation and (germane to this site) environmental regulation. ALEC provides corporations with access and influence far beyond what ordinary citizens could ever hope to achieve, as if the influence of corporate political donations and corporate sponsored political action committees hasn’t already been sufficient.
ALEC promotes itself as a think tank for state-based policy issues. To be fair, it does perform that function. They also address topics, whether you agree with them or not, that are the subject of legitimate public debate. However, that doesn’t earn them a pass. In practice, ALEC provides its corporate members (who have made donations) direct access to its legislative members under the guise of promoting it’s non-profit goals. Not content with the influence gained from this interaction, ALEC then spoon feeds corporate drafted legislation to its membership for introduction in state legislatures. Its conduct is more in keeping with that of a political action committee or lobbying entity than of a policy-oriented non-profit. The sudden proliferation of measures to limit public unions, cut teacher’s pensions and other ALEC-backed measures in states with Republican governors or legislatures from Wisconsin to New Jersey is not a coincidence.
However, this isn’t meant to be a detailed analysis or expose’ of ALEC. There have already been a number of critical articles detailing the methods employed by the organization. An excellent summary of ALEC’s activities and purposes can be found in a paper sponsored by the Defenders of Wildlife and the NRDC entitled, Corporate America’s Trojan Horse in the States, the Untold Story Behind the American Legislative Exchange Council. Just today, Common Cause filed a complaint with the IRS challenging ALEC’s non-profit status. Rather, the purpose of this discussion is to raise awareness of what ALEC is, who is involved with ALEC, what their methods of operation are, what ALEC’s goals are regarding environmental protections and what lessons can be learned from their tactics.
As part of its Task Force on Energy, Environment and Agriculture, ALEC has produced two reports full of imagery portraying the EPA as a runaway freight train . The first is titled EPA’s Regulatory Train Wreck and the second is Economy Derailed. Both reports target the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, primarily on behalf of the electric generation, coal and gas industries. The reports set forth ALEC’s legislative agenda represented by a series of model bills that include the Climate Accountability Act, the Economic Impact Statements Act, the Conditioning Regulation of Non-Pollutant Emissions on Science Act, the Opportunity to Correct Act, the State Sovereignty Through Local Coordination Act and the State Regulatory Responsibility Act. The proposed bills all deal with lessening or eliminating regulations on industries engaged in mining, natural gas drilling and energy production. ALEC and its members believe that industry will be the best source of environmental protection, presumably through self regulation, and that over-reaching EPA regulations are an impediment to our economy.
Interestingly, the reports actually serve, at least in part, as a testament to the success of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Using the decrease in levels of air and water pollution as a rationale, ALEC’s task force comes to the conclusion that we no longer need strong federal regulation of polluting industries. Since we aren’t choking on the air and our rivers are no longer catching fire, all must be well. While advocating strongly for decreased regulation, neither report contains any recommendations to the affected industries for self-policing measures or for procedures or innovations to avoid polluting the environment. They just set forth a firm belief that the invisible hand of the economy will protect us. Its all very reassuring. Good luck to you if you value clean air and clean water and ALEC is successful in enacting this legislative agenda on a widespread basis.
So, to the lessons. One of ALEC’s founders, Paul Weyrich, said, “I always look at what the enemy is doing and if they’re winning, I copy it”. That is some sound advice. First, understanding what is happening is the first step towards being able to counter these efforts. ALEC legislation is coming to a statehouse near you. Find out which legislators in your state are ALEC members. Every state has legislative web sites that list bills proposed by individual legislators. Do some research and find out what bills are sponsored by ALEC members. Compare them to ALEC’s model bills, especially the environmental provisions listed above. They may have a different name or some slightly different language but the origin should be obvious. Write op-eds or letters to the editor exposing the agenda and who is working for ALEC as opposed to working for the citizens of your state. Be reasonable, informed and motivated. That is an effective combination.
Let corporations that support ALEC, especially consumer product corporations, know that you don’t support the organization’s anti-environment stances and its legislative agenda. Let those corporations know that there can be consequences arising from their membership in the form of loss of market share. The recent controversy over ALEC’s support for the “Stand Your Ground” laws on behalf of their long time member and supporter the National Rifle Association should serve as an example that this can be effective. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Intuit, Mars, Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have withdrawn their support of ALEC in the wake of the Treyvon Martin shooting. Environmental issues can be just as compelling a reason to voice displeasure over association with this organization.
Finally, the hardest lesson to learn comes from the approach that ALEC has taken. They have a long-term view when it comes to enacting their agenda and pursuing their goals. They stayed low-key and quietly pushed their causes for years until the right conditions came about for them to move more aggressively. Environmentalists need to take a similar approach. Rather than merely fighting each crisis as it arises, a multi-year strategy needs to be followed. Discipline of message and perseverance are important elements of this approach. ALEC backed environmental pull-backs didn’t happen overnight. They were the result of years of hard work and persistence. That kind of effort needs to be matched. Cultivation and support of friendly legislators, clear communications skills, and cooperation between environmental groups with similar interests are key elements of success. The environmental movement can’t hope to achieve political power by raising and spending money like corporate interests. The power needs to be achieved by the strength of the cause.
At the end of the analysis, influence is a function of perceived power and support. Having a message that is clear, strong, relevant and sound will garner support if it is adequately communicated. Support brings influence and influence brings power. Politics will respond to power. It’s a basic equation. The environmental community will never be able to bring the financial resources to bear that the interests of business and industry can marshal. However, the power of people is what matters most. That means that it is essential to build a power base that is established through the use of the fundamental principles of education, communication, cooperation, discipline and persistence. If your enemy is winning, find out what they’re doing and copy it.