Venkata: A smart ALEC

A nonprofit knows how to stay off your radar.

Uma Venkata

The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization of senators and lobbyists in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the “principles of limited government, free markets and federalism.” Its goal is to facilitate policy with advice from the private sector. ALEC is quite effective, as it turns out. 

A study from the Brookings Institute in 2013 found that actually determining ALEC’s impact — the bills it drafts that are introduced and passed in American statehouses — is nebulous and guarded. The study’s author referred to a third-party watchdog, “ALEC Exposed,” to help her find them. ALEC does not make that easy. It is an intensely private organization, keen to keep its proceedings and communications away from public scrutiny. That same Brookings study found an appreciable number of ALEC model bills that are introduced to state legislatures frequently and have a greater rate of being passed into law than most other legislation. These bills are famous for being brought to legislature floors word-for-word and for being passed that way.

This is not something that ALEC necessarily advertises. Transparency in this organization is certainly a concern. For example, ALEC invited the news media to attend its 2013 annual meeting on policy in Washington D.C. — a great step for them. But subcommittee, task force and business meetings were not actually open to the press. These meetings included a task force on international relations, headed by Philip Morris International; commerce and insurance, headed by State Farm; environment and energy, by private-sector firm American Electric Power. But ALEC’s statement to a Washington Post reporter at the time was still that ALEC is fully legislator-driven

Stating the obvious so we don’t have to read between the lines: if any organization is doing good things, it is in its own interest to promote them. We have to wonder why ALEC does not. Like any other action-oriented group, ALEC runs on recruitment and network. Its successes should, theoretically, be public. ALEC needs engaged and associated lawmakers to achieve its goals, which, again to be clear, are private-sector interests. The point of all this is that those interests should always align with the interests of the general American public. But if the interests did align, there would be no need for ALEC.

ALEC’s veneer of untouchability was dented in 2012 after the death of Trayvon Martin, a teenager shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Florida. In 2005, Florida (and multiple other states) had passed a “stand-your-ground” law, adopted as a model bill from ALEC and the National Rifle Association. ALEC lost the membership of 400 legislators and 60 core corporations over two years due to the public relations fiasco.

Not to worry, ALEC is doing fine. Its full membership list is not public, but its cheerleader Mick Mulvaney is currently White House chief of staff. ALEC and its corporate relations are doing fine. American corporate tax rates are pretty scanty this year, even for our friend Amazon and its $0 in taxes for 2018, (its second tax-free year). 

I say all this because it’s important for us to know. It’s up to you to decide how much influence you want corporations to have on tax money that would otherwise go to you. And if not taxes, then other social or economic policy. Though it’s hard to find, it’s all there and it all matters.