By Brad Friedman on 4/13/2012, 1:38pm PT  

On my KPFK/Pacifica show Wednesday, I devoted the first part of the show to the question of "What's the problem with ALEC?" My argument was, essentially, that what the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC does via its so-called "nonpartisan public-private partnership of America's state legislators, members of the private sector, the federal government, and general public" may be abhorrent, but, by and large, it is nonetheless perfectly allowable under our current, horrendous, system of corporate lobbying and campaign finance laws.

I posited that while their system of secretly crafting corporate-sponsored "model legislation" --- such as disenfranchising polling place Photo ID restriction laws and so-called "Stand Your Ground" laws, better described as "Shoot to Kill" laws, which are then introduced by member state legislators (almost all of whom are Republican, not "bi-partisan", as ALEC would have you believe) --- runs counter to the values of progressives, the real problem with ALEC is that they have opportunistically taken advantage of either loopholes or pro-corporate/anti-citizen statutes in state and federal law.

The BRAD BLOG's legal analyst Ernest Canning joined me for the discussion on Wednesday and generally seems to disagree with my overall assessment, noting, among other things that it's not quite so clear that ALEC isn't violating the law. He also points to, among other things, his recent report detailing a complaint that has been filed by the Center for Media & Democracy against 43 Republican legislators in Wisconsin, members of ALEC all, who, the complaint alleges, are operating in violation of state disclosure and open meeting laws vis a vis their dealings with ALEC.

But that, I argued, is the ethical and/or legal failure of the state legislators, not specifically of ALEC.

Today, Suzanne Merkelson at United Republic, an actual non-partisan organization, dedicated to highlighting the corruption of public officials via "special interests and big money lobbyists", offers a bit of ammunition which buttresses Canning's argument...

"[T]his isn't fundamentally a left-right issue," Merkelson writes at United Republic's blog Republic Report. "This is about using big money to advance an agenda that's harmful to individual freedoms (like the right to vote). This about using that big money (which comes from the pockets of [ALEC] members' shareholders and customers) to suppress the American people's ability to self-govern. This about using carefully-hidden big money to subvert American democracy."

Merkelson has been highlighting ALEC's response to the firestorm of criticism over their policies and the way they do business, as reflected in a campaign that has been launched by ColorOfChange.org and other organizations to target the group's huge list of corporate sponsors.

So far, the campaign has seen success in a recent exodus of major companies which are quickly withdrawing sponsorship from ALEC, including corporations like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kraft Foods, Inuit and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

On Wednesday, ALEC released a statement decrying a "well-funded, expertly coordinated intimidation campaign" against their corporate sponsors. (Again, take a look at that list of corporate sponsors to appreciate how disingenuous the cry about how "well-funded" the opposition is to the secretive corporate front group.)

But isn't such a campaign precisely the type of "free market" activity that ALEC claims at the top of every single page of its website to support?

As United Republic's Zaid Jilani writes in response to the ALEC statement:

ALEC loves to claim that it is simply advocating for small-government, conservative ideas. But its agenda isn't that of the free market but rather one of its Big Business donors. It has in the past gotten state legislatures to pass laws stopping local governments from enacting their own municipal broadband systems and banning them from deciding to use their tax dollars to pay living wages to contractors. These laws are not designed to promote the free market or small government. They have only one goal - padding the profits of ALEC's corporate members, even if small government principles are discarded in the process.

The ALEC statement then goes on to claim its opponents are "ideological special interests who would like to eliminate discourse that leads to economic vitality, jobs and fiscal stability for the states."

But isn't the discourse now taking place publicly about the previously very secretive ALEC precisely the type of public debate the group is now pretending to favor?

Jilani describes the ALEC response as "nonsense".

"We here at Republic Report love the discourse about ALEC that is occurring in town squares, internet forums, social media, and corporate boardrooms all over America. We and our partners have sought to engage in this discussion with corporations sitting on ALEC's Private Enterprise Board," he writes. "Everywhere, Americans are asking why corporations are pouring so much money into this secretive organization that has such a harmful impact on their lives."

Indeed, as Merkelson points out in response to yet another statement issued by ALEC today, the pretend "non-partisan" group, is now upping both their Left/Right rhetoric as well as their claims of victimization in response to the public campaign against them. They now describe the democratic, free market activity an "intimidation campaign launched by a coalition of extreme liberal activists committed to silencing anyone who disagrees with their agenda."

"Finally, now more than ever," the statement reads, "America needs organizations like ALEC to foster the discussion and debate of policy differences in an open, transparent way and not fall back on bullying, intimidation and threats."

But ALEC is anything but "open" and "transparent". The Center for Media & Democracy notes that the group's hundreds of "model legislation" bills --- they boast that some 1,000 of them are proposed in state legislatures each year --- are introduced by elected officials "without disclosing to the public that corporations previously drafted or voted on them through ALEC."

Merkelson underscores the group's secrecy, as evidenced by a video published last year by Lee Fang (formerly of Think Progress, now of United Republican) and Think Progress' Scott Keyes, who are seen (unsuccessfully) attempting to gain access to an ALEC conference in New Orleans and/or interview officials or lobbyists who are there to participate in the closed door conference and corporate-sponsored parties that follow it...

Does anything in that video appear to represent "discussion and debate of policy differences in an open, transparent way" as ALEC is claiming is needed "now more than ever" --- only now that they are under the political fire of a free-speech campaign?

I should note that I invited ALEC's Director of Communications Kaitlyn Buss to speak on behalf of her group on last Wednesday's KPFK radio show. She has yet to offer the courtesy of a reply to either my email or phone invitations. But if she'd like to participate in a "discussion and debate of policy differences in an open, transparent way," as regards her organization, the offer is still on the table. I would truly like to hear their point of view on a number of the issues discussed above, and many more.

Finally, for now, Canning added an additional thought to the discussion, after the radio show, in comments at The BRAD BLOG, highlighting, in even more strenuous terms, how he believes that I may be underestimating the true dangers of ALEC. Their actions, he argues, while often characterized as little more than "pro-business" or, as I've described them, "apparently legal", might even be seen, collectively, as genocidal:

During the course of our dialogue I failed to adequately express why the narrow topic of whether ALEC violates the letter of the law entails an erroneous frame.

The question cannot be divorced from the real world impact of its member corporations. Doing so is analogous to the arguments presented on behalf of the Nuremberg defendants that their war crimes trials amounted to retroactive criminalization of "actions that had been legal [under German law], and even required under orders."

You might suggest that Nuremberg is an extreme example.

I'm not so sure.

Amongst ALEC's stellar members are giant corporations, like Exxon-Mobil and Koch Industries, who, in the interests of their corporate bottom lines, are leading the climate change denial campaign even as the CO2 & toxins they deposit into the environment and resultant global climate change contribute to an estimated 300,000 deaths per year --- not to mention the threat this poses to planetary survival.

Then there are the 40,000 Americans who die each year from food contamination, the 45,000 Americans who die each year simply because they can't afford health insurance, and the 300% to 400% increase in "justifiable homicides" following Florida's adoption of its "stand-your-ground" law, which law, ALEC is seeking to see emulated in every state.

Add to that the wholesale slaughter brought on by the military-industrial complex and perpetual war and you begin to see numbers that sound a whole lot like genocide.

You may suggest that all of this cannot be laid upon ALEC. But ALEC, along with the Federalist Society, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Fox 'News'/right-wing radio/right-wing think tanks, are simply tools through which a tiny group of radical, right-wing billionaires seek to eradicate constitutional democracy, the rule of law and the legal safeguards, like the EPA, which are designed to prevent the very environmental catastrophe that may be the result of their plutocratic manipulations.

Canning may be accurate in the startling assertions he offers above, though I'd still argue that the opposition to ALEC is built on strong, but ideology disagreement (in as much as opposing genocide must now be seen as ideological in today's grotesquely perverted political environment.)

Yes, the intent of ALEC's "model legislation" is clearly abhorrent to most progressives, and likely to most Americans as a whole if they fully knew about it and the costs they pay for it. Yes, ALEC's methods are duplicitous and non-transparent. Yes, ALEC and it's members work to skirt the intent of corporate lobbying laws, even if they follow the letter of it (or claim to.) Yes, ALEC and their corporate sponsors should be targeted by an open and transparent and democratic campaign forcing its corporate sponsors into the light for their participation in such an insidious and malevolent organization.

Ultimately, however, "the problem with ALEC", is our problem. The problem of "we, the people" who have allowed such an organization to hold such sway over our democratic system of self-governance. It is the laws that allow an ALEC to operate as they do, particularly in a twisted post-Citizens United world, that are to blame --- along with the legislators who put the group's corporate interests ahead of their constituents', and the law enforcement and election officials who decline to fully hold the group accountable to existing laws (eg. See the comments from the Tobacco Lobbyist in response to Fang in the video above.)

The "problem with ALEC", ultimately, is a systemic one. Not one with ALEC itself. If ALEC is struck down, another "ALEC" will simply rise in its place, at least until the way this nation "self-governs" itself --- with a government that was originally crafted to be of the people, by the people and for the people --- sees a sea change that puts its citizens first once again, and its fictional business entities back down in the basement of the societal pecking order where they belong: as legal collectives meant to serve the people, rather than dictate, control and even kill them.

What's the problem with ALEC? We are. So the real question continues to be: What are we, the people, going to do about it?