When America’s corporate titans shift their weight, the tremors travel fast. Last week, Coca-Cola, Kraft and accounting-software giant Intuit announced they were ending their membership in a conservative nonprofit group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The news sent reporters scrambling to explain what exactly the 39-year-old organization does, why it matters and how its role in spreading laws — governing everything from voter ID requirements to anti-illegal-immigration efforts — came to be a problem for some of America’s foremost corporate citizens.
What may have seemed like an obscure bit of corporate priority shifting quickly became a hot button. By the end of last week, the news had made the front page of social-media hive mind Reddit, whose users enjoy earnest, libertarian-leaning encomiums to open government almost as much as they like posting cat pictures. “It is time for a call to action,” the post began. “ALEC has been exposed.”
The high-profile departures from ALEC were not set in motion nor fully explained by just a few days of public scrutiny. For the past four months, liberal advocacy groups, unions and activist investors have been reaching out to major corporations, asking them to further disclose their activity with ALEC or drop membership altogether. Things boiled over last week, but the underlying issues had been simmering for much longer.
ALEC, a tax-exempt group operating under the 501(c)3 section of the IRS code, bills itself as “a nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers” interested in “limited government, free markets, federalism and individual liberty.” It convenes policy task forces and drafts model bills that can be introduced in state legislatures nationwide. For a modest membership fee, conservative legislators gain access to the group’s resources. Think of ALEC’s prepackaged and prelawyered legislation as Swanson TV dinners: all you need is a majority vote to reheat it, and it’s ready to serve. The result: similarly flavored bills in statehouses across the country.
In many ways, ALEC resembles groups like the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a nonpartisan resource for state lawmakers that provides assistance, research and a brainstorming forum. As statehouse budgets and staffs shrink, outside assistance has become critical. “This is how state governments work,” says Alan Rosenthal, a professor of public policy and political science at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics. “ALEC isn’t the first organization to use model bills.” But ALEC is unique in its ideology — the NCSL and other groups like it have no political bent. And ALEC’s coordination with corporate America is unparalleled among legislative groups.
Founded in 1973 by conservative lawmakers and activists — most notably Paul Weyrich, who also set up the flagship conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation that same year — ALEC was designed to further small-government and private-sector interests at the local level. State legislators active in its early efforts included Terry Branstad, now governor of Iowa; John Kasich, now governor of Ohio; and Tommy Thompson, the former four-term governor of Wisconsin who is currently running for the U.S. Senate. House Speaker John Boehner, the highest-ranking Republican in the federal government, is another alum. ALEC now claims some 2,000 state legislators in its ranks, roughly a quarter of state lawmakers nationwide. More than 500 companies, foundations and individuals pay membership dues, according to the organization.
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