What is ALEC, and Why You Should Care

Kyle Curtis Facebook

While such laws as making it illegal for welfare recipients in Minnesota to carry cash- in effect criminalizing poor people- or a Missouri Republican’s proposal to repeal child labor laws may not necessarily be based on ALEC’s “model legislation” it’s really difficult to assert as such without the ability to access such model legislation on ALEC’s website. How do we know similar bizarre pieces of legislation aren’t currently in the hands of Oregon lawmakers, chomping at the bit to arrest poor people for having the nerve to be carrying twenty dollars on them?

Those following the national blogosphere might be aware of the attacks on University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon by the increasingly Gestapo-like Wisconsin State Republican Party. The Wisconsin Republicans have filed a freedom of information request for Professor Cronon’s emails, with the ostensible rationale given that they are concerned about Cronon- a public employee- communicating with organizers of the weeks-long protest in Madison opposing Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting bill. I use the word “ostensibly” as the Wisconsin Republicans have resorted to such Spanish Inquisition-type tactics against Cronon shortly after he published the initial post “Who’s Really Behind the Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn’t Start Here)” on his new blog Scholar as Citizen. (This blog post shortly followed a New York Times op-ed that touched on similar subject matter.)

There ends the summary of recent events. Most Blue Oregon readers are keenly aware of what has occurred in Madison these recent months, and perhaps wonder of the relevance does Governor Walker’s complete- and possibly illegal- executive overreach and the Wisconsin Republicans picking on an obscure (and, presumably, an elite latte-sipping liberal) university professor have on the legislative goings-on in Salem? Well, perhaps you have wondered why near-identical legislation that strips collective bargaining for public employees has been introduced in statehouses ranging from Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Idaho, etc….? The Republican-controlled Michigan legislature passed the state’s “financial martial law” bill, effectively making representative democracy in that state a quaint thing of the past. Be prepared to see similar pieces of legislation rolled out by other GOP state lawmakers, along with similar legislature to Michigan’s newly passed legislation to reduce unemployment benefits in 2012. How do such draconian pieces of legislation get so speedily introduced and passed scant weeks after new lawmakers have been sworn into office? Professor Cronon provides the answer in his blog post where he makes the case that while the Koch Brothers’ billions and the Astro-turfin’ Tea Partiers definitely help win elections, it is through the efforts of the more insidious American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that allows the passage of such horrible pieces of legislation even remotely possible. And it is for this reason of exposing the men behind the Republicans’ legislative curtain that Professor Cronon has been targeted for attacks by the Wisconsin GOP.

Professor Cronon’s blog post is an eye-opening read, and is essential to understand the legislative wars that are currently being waged in statehouses throughout the country. Cronon makes it very clear what ALEC is and why this organization poses such an extraordinary threat to democracy. At the risk of paraphrasing his words, I’ll just quote them directly:

“…[formed in 1973, ALEC’s] goal for the past forty years has been to draft “model bills” that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)”

In other words, while the typical follower of progressive politics may be aware of such conservative think-tanks as the Heritage Institute, Charles Koch’s Cato Institute, and the libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation, here is a policy-based conservative think-tank whose sole purpose is to draft legislation and have it introduced on the floor of statehouses at a moment’s notice. As such, when there is a “wave” election resulting in formerly blue state legislatures switching to red, a similar “wave” of “model” legislation previously written by ALEC is ready to be introduced in the state House chambers, irrespective of the facts that the state is currently facing. (Is it any wonder that the so-called “budget repair” bill was passed in Wisconsin only after everything having to do with the budget was stripped out, leaving the bill reduced to its ideological union-busting components?)

Interested in just what sort of services ALEC offers, Professor Cronon explores the organization’s website:

But the meat of the site is the “model legislation” page, which is the gateway to the hundreds of bills that ALEC has drafted for the benefit of its conservative members.

Cool! So what is listed there?

You’ll of course be eager to look these over…but you won’t be able to, because you’re not a member.

Okay then, so how does one “become” a member- solely by being an elected conservative state official? Sadly, as Professor Cronon finds out, becoming a member of ALEC is not “an easy thing to do”:

How do you become a member? Simple. Two ways. You can be an elected Republican legislator who, after being individually vetted, pays a token fee of roughly $100 per biennium to join… What if you’re not a Republican elected official? Not to worry. You can apply to join ALEC as a “private sector” member by paying at least a few thousand dollars depending on which legislative domains most interest you… Then again, even if most of us had this kind of money to contribute to ALEC, I have a feeling that membership might not necessarily be open to just anyone who is willing to pay the fee. But maybe I’m being cynical here.

Curious to find out which Wisconsin Republican legislators were members of ALEC, Professor Cronon finds out that ALEC’s membership can only be accessed… by logging in to the site as a member. Huh. How about that. Not only does this organization exists whose sole purpose is to write and distribute cookie-cutter conservative legislation to be passed by state legislatures once elections have a favorable result, it is practically impossible to find out which of the conservative representatives in our statehouse belong to this organization, representing a constituency thousands of miles away opposed to constituents in their home district. Looking through ALEC’s website myself, I noticed that the organization appropriates “Jeffersonian ideals” of free markets, limited government, and federalism but ignores the protection of the commons and the general welfare, or other such similar concepts Jefferson wrote about in the Constitution. The expected players are to be found: Koch Industries is duly represented on ALEC’s Private Enterprise Board, while the Board of “Scholars” includes of Dr. Arthur Laffer (of “the Laffer Curve” fame) and The Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore. (Regular watchers of Real Time with Bill Maher might recognize these two so-called scholars through Maher’s incredible evisceration of their recitation of tired and disproven conservative talking points.)

ALEC also has a list of state chairman, with Oregon being represented by Rep. C. Gene Whisnant of Sunriver. Besides Rep. Whisnant, the question should be asked: How many other members of the Oregon Republican caucus are ALEC members? What “model legislation” approved by ALEC’s nine task forces currently sit on the desk of a conservative Oregon lawmaker, ready to be introduced at the proper time? A recent commentary offered from David Sirota examined the “Mad Scientists in the Laboratories of Democracy.” While such laws as making it illegal for welfare recipients in Minnesota to carry cash- in effect criminalizing poor people- or a Missouri Republican’s proposal to repeal child labor laws may not necessarily be based on ALEC’s “model legislation” it’s really difficult to assert as such without the ability to access the model legislation listed on ALEC’s website. How do we know similar bizarre pieces of legislation aren’t currently in the hands of Oregon lawmakers, chomping at the bit to arrest poor people for having the nerve to be carrying twenty dollars on them? ALEC boasts of introducing nearly 1,000 bills at the state level, of which nearly 17% are signed into law. These are astonishing numbers- and it needs to be clear to Oregon voters which pieces of state legislation are being modeled and written at a national level to be introduced in Salem.

In fact, it could be argued that Oregonians dodged a bullet this past November. If the election results had been any different, if a seemingly moderate Chris Dudley were to come into office with an emboldened Republican leadership, we would be seeing similar such “mad” legislation introduced in Salem on a regular basis. After all, Rick Snyder campaigned in Michigan as a self-styled moderate as well.

An effort needs to be made to find out just which Oregon conservative lawmakers (from either party) are proud members of ALEC, and what pieces of ALEC’s “model legislation” are being brought to the floor of Oregon’s state house. It needs to be guaranteed that Oregon’s representatives- especially its conservatives- are ably representing the priorities and interests of the constituents living in zip codes that start with a 9 and a 7, and not a constituency from a 20005 zip code.

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    "Gestapo-like"? Ugh. Very unbecoming of Blue Oregon.

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    The term was carefully chosen not to equate the actions of the Wisconsin GOP with the atrocities committed in fascist Germany, but instead to serve as a warning.

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      That you spent time considering the analogy, and presumably ruling out something more apt, makes it worse.

      Throwing around Nazi comparisons outside of the genocide context makes it very difficult to take you seriously.

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        You know, Russ, good point. Considering the state I was describing, I should have perhaps used the term McCarthy-like. Or given Wisconsin's penchant of homegrown serial killers like Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer, I could've used the term "psychopath-like". It must be something in the corn up there!

        It is hard to take you seriously with your literal obsession regarding the use of a word in the first sentence that is not referred to in any manner throughout the rest of the story. (Although, admittedly, I do make a reference to the Spanish Inquisition, thus trivializing and denigrating the countless of thousands who were tortured and killed during its reign of terror. Oh, me and my reckless and flip historical analogies!)

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          Russ is right. We've generally tried to avoid analogies to genocide when not discussing genocide.

          As I've said before, sometimes people use "Nazi" to mean "really, really bad". (I note here that you didn't actually say "Nazi", but "Gestapo" is closely associated, of course.)

          The problem is NOT that anyone is excusing the really, really bad behavior. Rather, that by equating - in this case - Wisconsin Republicans with the Nazi secret police, it minimizes and normalizes what the Nazis did.

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            Certainly, as a relatively recent contributor to Blue Oregon, I'd prefer to have readers focus- and debate- the content of the issues raised as opposed to the choice of words used for an analogy. The last thing I would want is for anyone to be denigrated by the comparison, or to think that the atrocities committed 70 years ago are being trivialized in any manner.

            That sad, I'm sure there is little doubt that the actions taken by the Wisconsin GOP are, indeed, "really, really bad." And we can all take a deep sigh of relief that we are here in Oregon, where relatively cooler heads prevail in our statehouse. At least for the moment.

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    Regardless of the merits, avoiding this kind of intrusion is simple: don't use work or public university equipment or email for individual, private activity. In this day and age of free or low-cost private email, there is no reason to use public-paid resources for personal use.

    This goes for anything; keep your work email correspondence limited to work, and private email correspondence segregated to personal emails; then there would be little to worry about.

    It amazes me when supposedly smart people make simple mistakes like this.

    Finally, don't put in an email something you'd never want to reveal to prying eyes. You will eventually get burned. Posts on an internet blog? Same thing - it's can't be erased.

    As to "help" in getting legislation written, I'm sure it never happens on the other side :roll-eyes:

    Mike (written from my personal computer)

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      Mike, you might be interested in the following excerpt in a letter to Governor Walker fro ma Republican voter:

      I am very disappointed by the recent and transparent efforts by the Wisconsin GOP to intimidate Professor Cronon. Inquiry into political activities and discourse about such activities is a legitimate academic pursuit. Even public employees have the right to voice private opinions, this is one of the most basic American rights. If there is nothing for the party to hide, there’s no cause for concern about a historian investigating and describing funding sources for reasons of posterity. The suggestions of wrong-doing inherent in your request so close on the heels of his blog posting is beneath the standards of the Wisconsin GOP. Casting aspersions on one of the most respected professors at one of the nation’s most respected universities makes you look petty and ridiculous.

      Full letter:


      In other words: How dare a college professor do his job. The horrors!

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    "an extraordinary threat to democracy...ALEC’s goal for the past forty years has been to draft 'model bills' that conservative legislators can introduce"

    Drafting model legislation is now a threat to democracy? Really? Sad.

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    So do any of you outraged defenders of Walker, have any thoughts on the rest of Mr. Curtis' article. It was long and touched on serveral datapoints beyond the thug intimdation tactics that they're deploying against Professor Cronon. The efforts at suppression and intimidation are really a sideshow to Curtis' points. After all, Darrell Issa's deploying the same diversionary tactics at national, and the genisis of these tactics dates back at least to The Newtster's brief reign of terror during the Clinton years.

    The meat here is in the makeup and funding of ALEC and the laws proposed and often passed. Like Curtis, I have no ability to see behind the curtain, but as a student recent political history, say from 1980 on, I can easily recognize key players and infer the agenda from the public record.

    Maybe that's why you're mostly deflecting. You are either unable or unwilling to defend on the merits, so you attack sentence fragments with vigor. An old and usually effective tactic, I'll admit.

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    From Rep. Whisnant's newsletter:

    As a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), we vote on model legislation in the committees. I have started to draft two of ALEC’s model legislation and plan on introducing them next session. One is a Privatization Initiative panel that would create a panel to consider Oregon government’s priorities and determine which activities are best provided by the government and what services could be provided by the private sector. The other ALEC model is to create a council on efficient government. We need to take a hard look at Oregon’s government and ensure that the services are delivered as efficient as possible.

    Here's the link. You'll have to retype it: http://www.leg.state.or.us/whisnant/newsletter/newsletter_10/newsletter_090110.html

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      Craig, thank you for the examples provided. At least Rep. Whisnant is being vocal in his association with ALEC, and the pieces of model legislation he is planning to introduce on the House floor. Though I kind of have the idea that the Privatization Initiative panel will conclude that nearly every government service will be more "efficient" if turned over to the private sector, where providing services will take a backseat to maximizing stakeholder dividends. I also wouldn't be surprised if ALEC's proposed council on efficient government would have a similar conclusion: Why, the most efficient government is no government at all!

      Maybe I'm being a bit cynical. But perhaps that cynicism stems from the realization that the use of the term "reform" actually ends up meaning "get away with entirely." For an example, see the proposal released this week by the House of Representatives to "reform" Medicare, which will end up slashing these benefits almost entirely. (You know, the same thing that Republicans warned seniors that those scary, scary Democrats were going to do if Congress wasn't given back to the Republicans!)

      Now, compare Whisnant's embrace of pre-written, model legislation provided by ALEC to the following excerpt from The Oregonian describing a bill that passed the House in February:

      HB2336 stems from complaints by some small farmers in 2009 about food safety regulations that varied among inspectors.

      "There have been problems," said Anthony Boutard, co-owner of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston. "Sometimes inspectors weren't sure what was legal and what wasn't."

      That led to yearlong meetings among state food safety specialists, Boutard and another small farmer, lawmakers and Landis, who represented farmers markets.

      So, on the one hand you have a committed group of constituents meeting with lawmakers and hammering out the details of a bill to ensure it will make it out of committee. On the other hand, you have a piece of legislation written by lord-knows-who in some office thousands of miles away which may or may not represent the interests of the constituents.

      The key point is that ALEC is a crutch for elected officials, demonstrating the unwillingness- or, perhaps, inability- to put the necessary time and effort in to be an effective legislator. And while Mike above said "the same thing" happens from the progressive side of the aisle, I would be just as critical if such an equalization existed. Its just that I haven't seen any evidence that supports the existence of such an organization.

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      Thanks for posting this Craig. I read this in the Representative's newsletter also. Wonder if we specifically ask the other Republican Congressmen, will they admit being ALEC members?

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    There must be some way to get through the wall these people have built. I found a somewhat cheesy lookin' website that had some good suggestions; one being to file a public records request to the state chairman. In our case that would be Rep. Whisnant. I've looked at Open Oregon's web site to see what I'm getting into. I gotta say it's a little intimidating. I think I read somewhere that ALEC is classifying themselves as an educational forum, or some such nonsense, as way way of getting out of having to respond to such requests. Here's the cheesy looking website. Again, you'll have to retype it. http://dbapress.com/quick-and-dirty/tracking-alec-model-legislation-through-real-legislatures

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    Yes, Alec does have its teeth in the Oregon legislature, and yes, it is influencing right wing thinking. No ifs, ands, or buts.

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