from the March 2008 issue-- progressive state representative Mark Pocan went behind enemy lines for this firsthand report on the American Legislative Exchange Council."
Through the Corporate Looking Glass
Navy blue. The day called for deep, dark, traditional navy blue. I picked out my most staid conservatively patterned gold tie to match the gold buttons on my navy suit.
I was going undercover. I’m a progressive state legislator from Wisconsin, and I was about to meet my enemy, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This organization promotes conservative policies at the state level. Made up of state legislators ($100 membership) and rightwing foundations and corporations ($5,000 to $50,000 membership), ALEC provides research and drafts model bills for state legislators that promote the agenda of its sponsors.
The occasion was ALEC’s policy summit in Washington, D.C., held at the elegant Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in early December. I felt like I was in a corporate “Alice in Wonderland” as I watched and listened as private power and public policy intertwined in the most strange and unnatural ways.
Case in point: According to workshops at ALEC, global warming is a huge, huge myth. At least two workshops addressed this issue, one titled “Taking the Politics Out of Science” and the other about “New Energy Technologies in a Carbon Constrained World.” The first workshop tried to point out inaccuracies about global warming and other “junk” science. The second was designed to talk up “clean coal” options and to make the point that CO2 emissions are not all bad.
One attendee during the question and answer portion of the presentation asked, “Is it true that with increased CO2 emissions we have had higher yields of some crops?” That elicited coos from two of the panelists. Somehow, increased CO2 is good because some crops may have increased growth, at the expense of rising sea levels, glacial retreat, devastating hurricanes, and soon-to-be swamped cities. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig.
At a working group on state health reform, we soon realized a lack of access or affordability is not a problem. The real problem is government getting involved. An angry white male legislator (in a room of about eighty people, the only African American was the man running the audio-visual system) barked “baloney” during a discussion about using state dollars to promote health care.
One presenter received a roomful of nodding heads to her claim that the health care debate is not about health care but actually about “increasing government control.” A presenter from the Cato Institute went on to explain the problem was not one of health care programs but “welfare” programs. He told the audience that “unless and until” we start calling Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and other social benefits “welfare,” the problem will only get worse. We should actually be cutting these programs, not expanding them, he said.
Another workshop, entitled “SCHIP Expansion: Bad for Kids, Families and Taxpayers,” was a hit with the rank-and-file conservative legislators. Corporate consultants urged them to “resist expansion of public programs,” cut the current ones, and allow the insurance market to work its magic without government intervention. In other words, provide anything and everything but health care to address, well, the need for health care.
As I walked up to a room featuring a working group on higher education, I heard one Southern legislator exclaim: “Public universities don’t want to be accountable to anyone. They don’t want to be accountable to the state. They only want to be accountable to God, and they don’t believe in God!” Ah, finally there’s a thoughtful public policy analysis.
One of my favorite presenters was Bill Orzechowski, of Orzechowski and Walker, an “economic and policy research and analysis firm.” Orzechowski’s former occupation was as the chief economist with the Tobacco Institute, the trade and lobbying association for big tobacco. He bemoaned the onslaught of increases on cigarette taxes to fund health programs like SCHIP, telling us the horrors of the “bootleg market” and tax evasion that crop up. He also bemoaned the unfair effect such taxes have on a “vulnerable minority”—smokers.
He offered his “unbiased” opinion using the scientific statistical methodology of “we’ve heard” to prove his points. He told us that “we’ve heard” that due to tobacco taxation, at least 15 percent of the cigarette market in the United States is contraband and that 68 percent of all people have bought contraband cigarettes at one time or another. He almost got me to change professions when he told us that he’s “heard” of people smuggling cigarettes from Mexico into Arizona, where a simple passenger vanload of contraband cigarettes could net you $171,000 in tax savings. After singing the praises of Grover Norquist, he then went on to refer to the current debate on health care as an “intellectual black box.”
An ALEC luncheon featured an award presentation to Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore. Laffer, creator of the economic Laffer Curve made famous by Reaganomics, and Moore, a founder of the Club for Growth, wrote “Rich States, Poor States: ALEC-Laffer State Economic Competitiveness Index.” This report ranks every state on its economic appeal, according to their standards. Factors that can affect your state’s score include whether you have a state income tax (shouldn’t), how many public employees you have per capita (few), whether big business is sheltered from tort suits (oh, those nasty trial lawyers), how high your minimum wage is (not high), whether you are a “right-to-work” state (icky unions), and whether you offer school vouchers or allow for home schooling (really icky teachers’ unions).
Here are its rankings of the top ten states, in descending order: Utah, Arizona, South Dakota, Wyoming, Tennessee, Virginia, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, and Texas. The forty-ninth state is New York, and Vermont comes in last.
The corporate involvement at the summit was a “who’s who” of big business. At the highest levels of sponsorship were Pfizer, Altria, Reynolds American, Bayer HealthCare, Eli Lilly & Co., Novartis, Wal-Mart, and AT&T. Rounding out the field of corporate elites were the American Chemistry Council, Coors Brewing Company, Dow AgroSciences, the Rubber Manufacturers Association, the Society of Toxicology, and numerous insurance, energy, and financial interests.
Socially conservative causes were noticeably absent from the agenda. ALEC’s focus was on making big business even bigger, not on saving your eternal soul. But exhibitors at the summit included groups like Americans United for Life, the Family Research Council, and the Pro-Family Legislative Network.
As I left the conference, I stopped by a booth to pick up a shirt about the myth of global warming for a friend of mine. It pictured a big “Kool-Aid” character in green, representing those on the left who believe in global warming. When I went to get the shirt, I gave the man working the booth my business card, which says I represent a district in Madison, Wisconsin. He responded: “Madison, Wisconsin? You’re behind enemy lines, my friend.” Little did he know.
Wisconsin State Representative Mark Pocan (D-Madison), who coined the term FitzWalkerstan on the floor of the State Assembly, served three terms on the state’s budget committee, including one as its co-chair. He also served as the vice-chair of the non-partisan National Council on State Legislature’s Budget and Policy committee. Pocan’s Assembly district includes both the State Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion, making Governor Scott Walker his most infamous constituent.
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