Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
Today the Center for Media and Democracy rolled out a new web site, ALEC Exposed, based on a massive leak of information from the American Legislative Exchange Council, the powerful coalition of corporations, rightwing foundations, and state legislators who have been literally writing the laws at the state level to push their pro-business, anti- democracy agenda.
For many years, big corporations, including Kraft, Pfizer, WalMart, and AT&T, to name a few, have been paying hefty dues to belong to a group that gives them access to state legislators. The legislators, for a much smaller fee, get to attend annual conferences, receive briefings from ALEC, and get the honor of putting their names on boilerplate legislation the groups drafts.
One of the many new pieces of information to emerge from the impressive ALEC Exposed project is that the corporate members of this group vote these bills out of their own, corporate committees before they are taken up by state legislatures.
"We've discovered through a whistleblower that these corporations actually vote on these bills behind closed doors, before legislatures or people they represent even hear about them," Lisa Graves, the director of the Center for Media and Democracy said today.
If you live in a state like Wisconsin, the results of this coordinated assault on democracy are all too evident.
Much of the group's legislation--privatizing the public schools, taking away collective bargaining rights, loosening environmental regulation, even suppressing the vote--got a huge boost when ALEC foot soldiers, including Governor Scott Walker and the heads of both of Wisconsin's legislative chambers, took power. The group's hard work and careful planning for just such an opportunity over the last two decades accounts for the head-spinning all-fronts attack ordinary citizens are currently enduring in Wisconsin.
State representative (and Progressive magazine blogger) Mark Pocan went "behind enemy lines" to write a piece about attending an ALEC conference for The Progressive Magazine back in March 2008, in a darkly comic piece titled "Through the Corporate Looking Glass".
That piece is more relevant--and less funny--now that ALEC has become even more powerful.
A big controversy erupted when Professor William Cronon at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, blogged about ALEC's corporate takeover of the state and became the target of Republican attacks and had his emails seized by Governor Scott Walker's administration.
Walker and Co. will be even less pleased when they see ALEC Exposed.
The site, which posts and analyzes more than 800 bills produced by ALEC, is a treasure trove of information, including never-released text of the actual ALEC bills broken down and organized by topic, information about the corporate membership of ALEC's task forces on particular issues, the names of ALEC's state chairmen, and the effects of the bills: on working people, schools, the environment, consumer rights, and our democracy.
"We know that we are standing on the shoulders of some tremendous investigative work," Lisa Graves said in a press conference on the roll-out, "But we believe this is a special contribution."
Reporters and citizens can now look at bills that were introduced in their states under the names of their elected officials, and trace the actual, corporate origins of these profoundly anti-democratic efforts.
"We know, for example, that Kraft has been the head of the task force for ALEC responsible for anti-union bills," Graves said.
On the schools issue, which I wrote about in a Progressive cover story a couple of months ago, it turns out that Connections Academy, the company that runs Wisconsin's virtual charter schools, which are poised to displace bricks-and-mortar public schools throughout the rural parts of the state under a Republican proposal, is the head of ALEC's task force on education.
The Center for Media and Democracy deserves a lot of credit for this tremendous addition to our understanding of what is happening to our states. Now, as ALEC Exposed puts it, it's up to us to dig in and spread the word.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Wisconsin's Recall Elections: The Teacher Who Could Tip the Scales."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter