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By Rep. Mark Pocan
I really thought it would take more than five minutes in New Orleans before I realized the conservative movement had landed there.
But it didn’t.
As I was waiting for my bags at the airport, I heard a mid-thirties woman talking on the phone. “Yeah, I’m down in New Orleans for the American Legislative Exchange Council meeting. We write legislation, and they pass our ideas. It’s the free market.”
I could have taken the next flight home, as that pretty much summed up what I would experience over the next three days at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) annual convention.
On ALEC’s website, the organization states its mission is “to advance the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty, through a nonpartisan public-private partnership.” In reality, ALEC is a corporate-funded and -dominated group that operates much like a dating service, only between legislators and special interests. It matches them up, builds relationships, culminates with the birth of special interest legislation, and ends happily ever after. That’s happy for the special corporate interests, that is. Call it corporatematch.com. Corporations and conservative interests are in charge; after all, they fund the organization. They call the shots. They write the legislation. They vote on the legislation. And they give advice on how to pass their bills. At a workshop I attended, one Texas legislator, who moderated the forum, went as far as to say that we are a big football team. The legislators are the football players and the corporate lobbyists and special interest group presenters are “our” coaches. Half of the organization is made up of legislators, mostly conservative Republicans. There is a smattering of conservative Democrats, a handful of people of color, and, well, me. The other half is comprised of corporate special interests. They pay big bucks to put their logos, lobbyists, and legislation in front of the objects of their affection: state legislators. Legislators can join for $100. For corporations or other organizations, make that thousands of dollars to join. I’ve followed ALEC for a while, including crashing its winter meeting three and a half years ago. I wrote a piece for The Progressive at the time. But with all the renewed attention on conservative legislation passing in states recently—especially in Wisconsin—this seemed like an opportunity too good to pass up. This year, about 2,000 people showed up—40-50 percent legislators, 50-60 percent corporate and rightwing interests. The convention consisted of big name speakers—Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Congressman and tea party impresario Dick Armey, economist Art Laffer—as well as workshops and task force meetings. The convention booklet was a “who’s who” of corporate partners: British Petroleum, Walmart, the Walton Family Foundation, Chevron, ExxonMobil, PhRMA, Bayer, VISA, Shell, Koch Industries, Inc., and State Farm Insurance, for starters. And there were dozens more. Each workshop generally focuses on a single topic, with corporate presenters promoting their positions on issues, along with model legislation. The task force meetings are where they actually create model legislation. Every task force (such as Tax and Fiscal Policy or Health and Human Services) is made up of two equal parts. Half is the public sector part (state legislators), and half is the private sector part (corporations). In order for model legislation to move forward, each task force must garner a majority of votes from each half. For example, if the legislator half likes an idea, but the corporate half doesn’t, the bill does not move forward. I saw that happen. The corporate-sponsored workshops dealt with a variety of topics, from education to environmental regulations to Medicaid and more. Just like the last time I was there, the standard “no-tax” message was a constant theme, as was the “free market” promotion. But it seemed this convention focused much more on specific advice and legislation to give every tool possible to conservative legislators on how to bring about change in their states. Take, for example, education. Although ALEC offered a couple of different workshops on K-12 education, they were very similar in content and focus.
Florida, Indiana, and New Jersey seem to be model states when it comes to conservative policies in education. Each was discussed, with similar themes in what was accomplished and how it was accomplished. ALEC repeatedly warned against introducing single pieces of legislation, as opposition can mount to kill your bill. Instead, it advised, follow the lead of states like Florida, where legislators introduced a fourteen-point plan, diverting opposition from focusing on any one piece.
On Medicaid, the corporate presenters were focused on convincing legislators to provide vouchers and block grants to avoid government-run health care. They were also insistent that states should provide the minimum possible for the federally mandated health insurance exchanges.
The tea party types went a bit ballistic that anyone would suggest following the federal mandate, instead saying they should hold off to see if the courts throw out the requirement or some other act comes along to end the mandate. This was a serious fight between the more practical corporate types looking to keep some market share and the fervent tea partiers. One legislator referred to the national health care plan as “Obamacareless.”
At a meeting on tax policy, speakers presented warmed over Taxpayer Bill of Rights legislation with a new name and description, because they are having problems getting the old version passed in blue states. They admitted the name change was simply an attempt to get it passed. Watch for bills with names that include “Pension Protection Act.”
One of the most interesting workshops was on the benefit of increased levels of CO2. The “scientist,” Sherwood Idso, referred to those worried about global warming as “climate alarmists.” After all, Idso co-authored a book about fifty-five reasons why increased CO2 is good for you. That’s right: Good for you.
The “evidence” provided ranged from the benefits to earthworms to pictures of forests that have more vegetation over the last 100 years due to increased CO2. My favorite argument of all was human longevity. Since there are increased amounts of CO2 in the last 100 years, and human longevity has increased over the last 100 years, therefore increased CO2 is good for increased longevity. Yes, Idso said he was a scientist.
But the most shocking statement Idso made was that if there was a three-inch sea level change, “you should just step back or you deserve to drown.” Honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Wikipedia defines a “secret society” as “a club or organization whose activities and inner functioning are concealed from non-members. The society may or may not attempt to conceal its existence. The term usually excludes covert groups, such as intelligence agencies or guerrilla insurgencies, which hide their activities and memberships but maintain a public presence. . . . and might involve the retention and transmission of secret knowledge, denial of membership in or knowledge of the group, the creation of personal bonds between members of the organization, and the use of secret rites or rituals which solidify members of the group.”
After spending three days at the ALEC annual convention, I found this definition extremely apt.
Its membership lists are kept secret. We don’t know who is a member, legislative or corporate. We don’t know how much money the organization gets from these corporations. The public is kept in the dark about who ALEC really is.
The level of paranoia at the convention by ALEC staff members was intense. They had added security to keep outsiders away. People who tried to register for the convention from groups like the Center for Media and Democracy were kicked out. When two people from the Center for American Progress were ejected, ALEC staffers even had altercations with them.
No video cameras were allowed. Staff members nervously paced the hallways at all levels looking for suspicious characters. When you went to one of the task force meetings where the corporate model legislation was actually approved, only task force members could even get a copy of what was presented.
At night, there were more secretive events and parties not listed on the agenda, all sponsored by corporations and conservative special interests. But unless you were “invited” (supposedly an ALEC membership would suffice), you wouldn’t even know about them. I received only one such invite that must have mistakenly got to me, because when I showed up, I was kicked out by an ALEC staff member.
As I entered the apparently “invitation only” party, servers walked around the room with cigars on silver platters. I took a cigar and walked into the room, only to run into a legislator from Wisconsin. Within a minute, a staff person from ALEC came up to ask me if I had an invite. Even after I said I did, he asked if I showed it at the door. Clearly, he somehow knew I wasn’t supposed to be invited to this exclusive “only certain” members party. Interestingly, the party was actually a corporate event. The fact that ALEC staff worked it only showed the interweaving of corporate control and the organization.
I doubt I’ll be going back to another ALEC convention any time soon. But if you are a single, somewhat unattractive corporation (maybe you have a chemical dumping problem or something) and you need a little love only a state legislature can give, ALEC is for you. It will match you up with eligible “free market” legislators who’ve been waiting all their lives for a corporation just as special as you are.
Of course, this will cost you a few bucks, but ah, the happiness.
You’ll share a drink or two at a reception (Note: Only corporations are allowed to pay on this first date). And eventually, that romance will blossom into something real.
Like special interest legislation.
All brought to you by the corporations that fund ALEC.
Mark Pocan is a Democratic member of the Wisconsin State Assembly. This report was produced as part of a collaborative investigative effort to expose the influence of corporate money on the political process by members of The Media Consortium, in partnership with the We the People Campaign. To read more stories from this series, visit www.themediaconsortium.org.