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The ALEC Cabal: How Influence Peddlers Undermine Democracy

"Power and Influence"

"Power and Influence" by Wandering Eyre on flickr

As the eyes of the nation are focused on lawmakers in Washington this week, hundreds of right-wing state legislators are quietly meeting with corporate lobbyists behind closed doors in a New Orleans hotel to draft far-reaching legislation. The secret meetings, underwritten by powerful special interests –  including the insurance and banking industries, big oil and the pharmaceutical giants – are part of an on-going effort to subvert the public interest by an industry backed-group shamelessly called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This hidden collusion between well-financed lobbyists and elected legislators undermines the basic American values of public debate and full-disclosure that Americans rightly expect when our laws are made.

Through ALEC, big corporations lay out more than $6 million a year to wine and dine state legislators, and pay for expensive vacations and junkets, while at the same time drafting corporate-friendly legislation that the politicians then push when they return to their statehouses. This covert coalition of state legislators and Wall Street moneymen has been surreptitiously working out of the view of Main Street Americans to dismantle health, safety and environmental regulations, privatize vital public services, restrict the ability of working men and women to make a fair wage, and reduce the ability of seniors, students, minorities and the poor to vote. All done behind closed doors without the press or public seeing whose palm is greased.

More than 2,000 state legislators are in on the game. Over the years, with corporate backing in their campaigns, they often go for higher office, like former ALEC members Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. More than 70 members of Congress and governors have attended the closed-to-the public get-togethers where corporate CEOs lay out the agenda for the year ahead. It is no coincidence that Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio made attacks on the middle class and collective bargaining rights their top priorities, rather than find real solutions and focus on job creation, when they took power earlier this year. They are both ALEC alumni.

A report last year by the American Association for Justice describes how ALEC advances the interests of powerful corporations against working families across the country. “ALEC’s campaigns and model legislation have run the gamut of issues,” they concluded, “but all have either protected or promoted a corporate revenue stream, often at the expense of consumers.” ALEC has worked on behalf of Telecom firms to block low-cost municipally-owned broadband. They’ve pushed bills, backed by the big banks, to force seniors to take out reverse mortgages before they can receive Medicaid. They’ve restricted the ability of states to require insurers to meet strengthened accounting and auditing rules.  Tobacco companies draft laws to limit lawsuits targeting their deadly products, while the private prison industry uses their clout in ALEC to push state laws – like Arizona’s anti-immigration legislation – to provide a steady stream of undocumented workers that they can jail in their privatized prisons.

The Wall Street barons take a tax deduction for the money they contribute to their secret cabal.  Publicly traded companies such as tobacco giant Altria, and well-known corporations such as AT&T, Boeing, ExxonMobil and Coca-Cola are all contributing big bucks, irresponsibly using shareholder funds to undermine the legislative process. They cynically form committees to write “model laws” hand-in-hand with compliant legislators, all while enjoying golf outings and lavish dinners far from the view of the public and press. In mid-July, Common Cause called on the IRS to investigate, noting that ALEC’s influence peddling “does an end-run around state ethics laws intended to restrict the ability of businesses to buy access to legislators in order to promote their policy agendas.” ALEC is little more than a shadowy influence-peddling operation disguised as a public charity.

Justice Louis Brandeis called state legislatures “the laboratories of democracy,” highlighting their ability to find innovative alternatives in the way each state would be governed. Today, however, the insidious ALEC conspiracy turns state legislatures into laboratories of deceit, where laws are presented for consideration after being crafted in secret meetings by some of the largest international corporations. The powerful interests participating in this covert council are pushing their agenda away from the view of the public, the press and without the accountability that Americans expect from those who write our laws. These efforts fly in the face of basic American values.

It is time to demand more information about the politicians and the corporate interests engaged in this corrupting process. Let’s tell legislators to write their own bills, or get a different job. Call your local media and demand that they report on elected officials in your state who work in secret with corporate lobbyists to undermine the integrity of state governments. Insist the media uncover the threads that connect corrupting corporate money to the agendas that are hatched in hiding by unscrupulous state legislators who collaborate with big-money backers. The corporate powers and colluding politicians participating in these secret ALEC meetings in New Orleans this week pose a direct threat to the independence and accountability of state governments across the country. Their actions need to be exposed and brought to a speedy end.

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Gerald McEntee

Gerald McEntee

Gerald W. McEntee is the International President of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the most aggressive and politically active organizing unions in the AFL-CIO. Since 2006, 145,000 women and men have changed their lives by forming a union with AFSCME. McEntee was first elected AFSCME President in 1981 and was re-elected in July 2008 to another four-year term.

As a Vice President of the AFL-CIO and chair of the Political Education Committee, McEntee is a key leader of the labor movement and its political efforts. Under McEntee’s leadership, the federation created its highly successful and much imitated voter education and mobilization program, which increased the number of union household voters to a record 26 percent of the electorate in 2006.

McEntee has long been a leader in the fight to reform the nation’s health care system. He chairs the AFL-CIO’s Health Care Committee and is a co-chair of Health Care for America NOW!, a national grassroots coalition that has launched a $40 million campaign to guarantee quality, affordable health care for all Americans.

McEntee is a co-founder and chairman of the board of the Economic Policy Institute, the preeminent voice for working Americans on the economy. He led the successful fight to stop President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, was an outspoken proponent for increasing the federal minimum wage, and is one of the nation’s leading advocates for America’s vital public services.

For his efforts to improve the lives of working families, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights presented McEntee with its prestigious Hubert H. Humphrey Award in 2004.

Before assuming the presidency of AFSCME, McEntee began his distinguished career as a labor leader in Pennsylvania in 1958. He led the drive to unionize more than 75,000 Pennsylvania public service employees, which at that time was the largest union mobilization in history. He was elected Executive Director at the founding convention of AFSCME Council 13 in Pennsylvania in 1973 and an International Vice President of AFSCME in 1974.

McEntee holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from LaSalle University in Philadelphia. A native of Philadelphia, McEntee and his wife Barbara live in Washington, DC.