Friday, December 6, 2013

ALEC - What the Koch Brothers and Google have in common.

In the Belly of a Luxurious Hotel
There is a cabal of corporations, right wing politicians from the State and Federal levels, and the financial elite who have been operating from the shadows since 1973. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is a Political Action Committee complete with loyalty oath but, unlike most lobbying entities, the membership of ALEC is secret and what they do is technically not publicly disclosed.

Their official goals are to “advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level.” What they really get involved in is voter suppression, possible vote tampering, curtailing of environmental regulations, keeping wages low,  privatization of schools and pushing for a corporatist agenda in the name of “Freedom from Big Government.”

Amongst their array of tools, ALEC does this through influencing State and Federal politics and holding legislative workshops and giant conventions. Legislators are flown out on company jets to these conventions, usually held at the most luxurious hotels. For 3 days corporate lobbyists and the financial big-wigs wine, dine, and buddy up with these elected officials to work on pro-corporate tailored legislation.

They have just started day 3 of their most recent convention, just after their 40 year anniversary.

In my mind this convention is like the anti-SXSW Eco conference. Instead of trying to find solutions to environmental problems, the ALEC meetings are trying to find ways of gutting the EPA, protecting their most polluting members and ways of not having to pay for killing off a species. I see them sitting around panel discussions sharing ideas on how to curtail solar power and even tax the sun. One can even imagine them cursing their past losses in gay rights and "stand your ground" over overpriced bourbon in darkened smoke-filled rooms.

A Little Background
The history of ALEC starts with, Paul Weyrich, who also founded the Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority. This is a gentleman who is one of the founding fathers of modern conservative Religious Right movement and publicly stated that he didn’t want people to actually vote and worked to “Christianize America” with Ted Cruz.

In researching this organization I was shocked to see one company in the ranks of members. Through leaked documents it was revealed that joining the ranks of Koch industries, Rupert Murdoch, and the Tobacco Industry was Google.

While a certain moral ambiguity has become expected at places like Facebook or even former ALEC member Walmart, hope still resided in Google's "Do No Evil" motto. While Google has been acting questionably on that front lately with hiring of former Republican Representative Molinari as their lobbyist and the fundraiser for Climate Change denier Jim Inhofe, and other ultra-conservative representatives, what they are doing currently with ALEC makes little to no sense.

The Young Turks, using some video footage from Brad Johnson of Forecast the Facts, explains the situation rather well.

While it is true that there was a panel yesterday discussing ways to influence auto insurance premiums  for driverless cars, like the ones Google is working on, many of ALEC's efforts go directly against many of the programs that Google and other forward-thinking companies pride themselves on. Specifically Google and Facebook’s environmental efforts would be curtailed and the tax incentives would be wiped clean if ALEC had their way.

An Inside View
At conferences, like the one finishing up today, they have a wide bevy of event and workshops that help bolster the corporate efforts on the legislative side. As described by Washington Post writer Dana Milbank when he entered “the belly of the beast;”

The environment and energy task force, led by private-sector American Electric Power. The tax and fiscal policy task force, headed by Altria. The international relations task force, run by Philip Morris. The commerce and insurance task force, by State Farm. And the health and human services task force, by Guarantee Trust Life Insurance.

Like Dana, most who don’t cough up the $1100 fee for the conference or are members of the press are shut out of the process. In fact, the public would have little to no knowledge of ALEC or its inner workings if it wasn’t for a number of leaked documents including ones that recently show that the group has a strange relationship with North Carolina, that its power may be on the decline and willfully misled the press and the public about the nature of the activities they participated in. They may in fact be in some trouble with the IRS for violations regarding these activities.

The Bad News
Currently ALEC is a 501(c)(3), a charitable organization which officially is not allowed to lobby, hence their issues with the IRS. To curtail this rule and continue lobbying to kill gun control, environmental protections and your right to unionize and even vote, ALEC is working on becoming a 501(c)(4).  This to-be-formed association, called the Jeffersonian Project, would be officially allowed to accept sizable donations without any disclosure. This group would be allowed to create attack ads, technically even lobbying activities as long as their primary role is education. As you may recall from the satirical efforts of the Colbert Report, corporate entities would prefer to donate to a (c)(4) because of the anonymity involved and for a strange loophole that allows anonymous donations to a (c)(4) that can then be funneled to a PAC like ALEC without disclosure of the original donors. If ALEC is allowed to create this organization, there would be literally no real way of knowing who was directly involved in the funding of their activities.

ALEC has big plans for 2014. So far these leaked documents and their own words have suggested efforts to do away with the minimum wage, push fracked natural gas as motor fuel, removing the bottom %75 from low income medical care, go after renewable  energy, and even call a constitutional convention of the states to try and "rail in" the activities of the federal government. Above all else there is the goal of regaining their lost membership and the revenue they create.

If any of these come to pass, the doors will be opening that will be hard to close and each of those doors lead to a very scary place. 

The Good News
The good news is that ALEC looks like it is on the decline and there are things that you, as a consumer and public citizen can do to kill ALEC and organizations that trample on our protections and our rights in the name of corporate gain.

One of the biggest successes that bit ALEC in the end was their wide-spread support and pushing of “Stand Your Ground” legislation. After the Trayvon Martin slaying ALEC felt a huge backlash to their organization. Much to ALEC’s chagrin groups like Amazon, Visa, Coca-cola, GE, and even WallMart wanted to disassociate themselves from this group for fear of seeming too “evil.” According to leaked documents this translated to a loss of about 400 state legislators and 60 corporation members in the last two years and about one third of their proceeds. (BTW, Ted Cruz, probably not the BEST strategy to tell your beloved ALEC to “stand [their] ground” as an organization, COULD be a triggering phrase.)

Another sign that this break away may be continuing is that Google actually dropped out of a panel discussion (the driverless car panel mentioned earlier) yesterday which some may take as a sign that they are rethinking this union. Groups like Forecast the Facts and their associated coalition have been working on applying pressure to Google.

While some may try to teach that "this just how big business needs to operate" it really doesn't need to be. We live in a world where each person has the power to call their representatives, even find out if they belong to ALEC, and voice their opinion. You can write an email to the head of Google to tell him your opinion. You can call out all the companies involved and all the legislators involved. You can create petitions to these companies and the government.

The more you get involved in the process and those involved, the better things can get. 

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