By Nancy Scola
For close watchers of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the group’s decision today to shut down its Public Safety and Elections Task Force is both a big deal — and not. One the one hand, the closed task force was the part of ALEC that fostered voter requirements and gun laws (such as the “Stand Your Ground” laws now in the news, thanks to the Trayvon Martin shooting). Task forces are, critically, ALEC’s organizing unit. The organization got started in 1973 but things really took root in the early 1980s with the creation of its Federalism Task Force. That worked so well that the group branched out to health care and telecommunications. By the end of the decade, there were at least a dozen of what ALEC’s organizational history calls its “freestanding think tanks and model bill movers.”
Victory is Significant, but There’s a Lot Left to Do
So ALEC’s sacrificing of its branch dedicated to tackling safety and elections issues is significant. And, of course, there’s the PR component of it all. An organization that owes part of its fame to the fact that it operates outside the public eye has had to respond to public pressure; the months-long online and offline campaign to peel corporate support away from ALEC we’ve detailed here. And for its part, ALEC seems almost willing to frame the flak it has gotten in recent months and weeks as a useful corrective. ALEC, to ALEC, has always been an organization dedicated to the Jeffersonian principles of “free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism.” Conservatives back legislation, as do liberals, but if Public Safety and Elections was not quite a rogue unit, it was a distraction. Today’s release from ALEC was titled “ALEC Sharpens Focus,” and the theme continued in its body, which said the group was recommitting to its “efforts on the economic front, a priority that has been the hallmark of out organization for decades.”
Problem is Process, Not Just Content
But, notwithstanding today’s move, much of what critics dislike about ALEC hasn’t been changed. A useful point of comparison here is the recent debate over the digital bills SOPA and PIPA. As you recall, many folks were outraged over the bills. Their champions, meanwhile, took that reaction to be a condemnation of the bills‘ content. MPAA chief Chris Dodd pledged to go back to the drawing board – surely, Congress and traditional entertainment industry groups could work something out. But SOPA and PIPA’s opponents rejected the former senator from Connecticut’s operating premise. No more would major telecom bills be negotiated in secret by a handful of interests. The problem was process, not just the bills themselves. With ALEC, the argument is that the very organizational model is no longer acceptable, if it ever was. The vision of a “public-private partnership” that gives companies like Coca-Cola, State Farm, and AT&T equal weight as legislators is concerning in and of itself. In short, according to those who question ALEC’s model, it sure seems a perversion of deliberative democracy, not to mention federalism, to have a few folks meet in a room to craft public policy that gets distributed nationwide without any meaningful transparency.
Crafting Legislative Tyranny
That all forms some of the context for the reactions today amongst those who have been drawing attention to ALEC for a long while now. For its part, the group ColorofChange.org, which has been campaigning against ALEC’s support for voter ID and other election laws since December, is implying that it doesn’t believe that anything has changed when it comes to ALEC’s work product. “ALEC’s latest statement is nothing more than a PR stunt aimed at diverting attention from its agenda,” said a statement put out by the group today, “which has done serious damage to our communities.”
Meanwhile, Common Cause said in a statement that, yes, ALEC’s decision to close its safety and elections component is “an important victory.” But the root objections to how it operates remain. “[B]ad laws the shuttered ALEC task force advanced remain on the books across the country, and ALEC continues to support legislation that weakens clean air and clean water regulations, undermines public schools and infringes on the bargaining rights or [sic] workers.” According to the ALEC website, among the eight or so task forces that remain are those on the environment, education, and economic development. There’s no sign that the group has any intention of rethinking its work on the issues Common Cause cares about.
Big Brother Watchdog Yanks Chain
And then there’s the statement put together by Lisa Graves, who leads the Center for Media and Democracy. It was CMD that put together the “ALEC Exposed” wiki that really kicked off the public conversation about the group in July. The substance of the bills generated within ALEC is one thing. And to be sure, Graves objects to it: ALEC, she writes, has an “extreme agenda” that makes it “more difficult for American citizens to vote and to protect armed vigilantes.” But more to the point here, Graves writes that “ALEC’s operating procedures undermine the Democratic process by giving corporate lobbyists and special interest groups an equal voice and vote on ‘model’ legislation alongside elected official at closed-door meetings of ALEC task forces at fancy resorts where the press and public are excluding.” That’s a useful summing of the structural objection to ALEC, and it’s one that the group’s move today doesn’t do much to address.
In fact, ALEC is doubling down on its model. Indeed, the group’s release declared it was “redoubling our efforts” when it comes to advancing economic policies. ALEC’s paring of its public safety and elections task force is a tightening up, not a rethinking of its mission – not by any means. “[W]e believe,” said the statement, “we must concentrate on initiatives that spur competitiveness and innovation and put more Americans back to work.” Getting rid of the Public Safety and Elections Task Force is a chance for ALEC to return to its original purpose: a place where the free-market minded can craft policy to be adopted where possible in the states.
Of course, on one end of the spectrum there might be some people who object to the very idea of conservatives getting together in a room and discussing stuff. But if you’re ALEC, you also have to imagine that there are plenty of people who don’t object to that in principle, but who are uncomfortable with a system where corporations might be helping to write policies that becomes laws across the country without the benefit of a whole lot of public vetting. That’s where the long, layered, networked campaign to convince corporations to drop their involvement in ALEC becomes particularly fascinating. The groups that have been objecting to ALEC’s model are proving themselves unappeased by the elimination of a division responsible for the legislation they see as particularly egregious. Getting rid of one problematic task force, for them, is good. But it’s also not much. That’s because the campaign objects to the very notion of an ALEC “task force” itself. Can ALEC’s opponents keep making that nuanced case? That’s the question to watch from here on out. Φ
Nancy Scola – Nancy Scola is an Atlantic Magazine correspondent based in New York City, whose work focuses on the intersections of politics and technology. She has written for Capital New York, Columbia Journalism Review, GOOD, New York, Reuters, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.