The American Legislative Exchange Council: A Primer On The Premier Right-Wing Corporate Lawmaking Shop

April 28, 2011 5:03 pm ET

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been around for almost 40 years, but it remains a little-known entity. Its influence over American politics is enormous. ALEC recruits conservative members of state legislatures to pay a $50 annual membership fee, and then solicits millions of dollars from corporations to finance a series of conferences where state lawmakers sit down with big business to write model legislation that can be easily propagated across the country at the state level. The laws often work to the economic benefit of the corporate giants who bankroll ALEC.

WHAT IS ALEC? "The Ultimate Smoke Filled Back Room"

The American Legislative Exchange Council Was Founded By Conservative Activists In 1973 To Connect Conservative State Lawmakers. From ALEC's "History" page:

More than 30 years ago, a small group of state legislators and conservative policy advocates met in Chicago to implement a vision: A nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers who shared a common belief in limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty. Their vision and initiative resulted in the creation of a voluntary membership association for people who believed that government closest to the people was fundamentally more effective, more just, and a better guarantor of freedom than the distant, bloated federal government in Washington, D.C.

At that meeting, in September 1973, state legislators, including then Illinois State Rep. Henry Hyde, conservative activist Paul Weyrich, and Lou Barnett, a veteran of then Gov. Ronald Reagan's 1968 presidential campaign, together with a handful of others, launched the American Legislative Exchange Council. [, accessed 4/28/11, emphasis added]

  • Paul Weyrich Also Coined The Term "Moral Majority" And Founded The Heritage Foundation. From Weyrich's obituary in the Times of London: "Paul Weyrich was a driving force behind the creation of a populist Religious Right in the US in the 1970s and 1980s. He revitalised the Republican Party, broadening its appeal from what he called an 'elitist social club' by embracing the Middle Americans unsettled by the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s, thereby beginning the conservative realignment in American politics that benefited Republicans from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. By founding the Heritage Foundation, Weyrich and the New Right challenged Democratic dominance of Washington intellectual life. By coining the term 'moral majority' and co-founding the pressure group of that name, he ensured that social issues such as abortion and homosexuality would dominate US political culture." [Times of London, 1/8/09, emphasis added]

American Association For Justice: ALEC "Is The Ultimate Smoke Filled Back Room." From the American Association for Justice's report on ALEC: "Few have ever heard of it, but the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is the ultimate smoke filled back room. On the surface, ALEC's membership is mostly comprised of thousands of state legislators. Each pays a nominal membership fee in order to attend ALEC retreats and receive model legislation. ALEC's corporate contributors, on the other hand, pay a king's ransom to gain access to legislators and distribute their corporate-crafted legislation. So, while the membership appears to be public sector, the bankroll is almost entirely private sector. In fact, public sector membership dues account for only around one percent of ALEC's annual revenues." [, May 2010, emphasis added]

ALEC Is A Secretive Organization. As reported by NPR: "Much about ALEC is private. It does not disclose how it spends its money or who gives it to them. ALEC rarely grants interviews. [Senior policy director Michael] Bowman won't even say which legislators are members." [, 10/29/10]

ALEC Provides Ready-Made Pieces Of Law To Legislators Who "Often Have No Staff To Do Independent Research." As reported by Mother Jones:

With more than 2,400 state lawmakers as members -- roughly one third of the nation's total -- ALEC is a year-round clearinghouse for business-friendly legislation. Its nine task forces, each composed of legislators and representatives from private industry, sit down together to draft model bills on issues ranging from agriculture to school vouchers, which are then introduced in state legislatures across the country.

Though it calls itself "the nation's largest bipartisan, individual membership association of state legislators," ALEC might better be described as one of the nation's most powerful -- and least known -- corporate lobbies. While other lobbyists focus on the federal government, ALEC gives business a direct hand in writing bills that are considered in state assemblies nationwide. Funded primarily by large corporations, industry groups, and conservative foundations -- including R.J. Reynolds, Koch Industries, and the American Petroleum Institute -- the group takes a chain-restaurant approach to public policy, supplying precooked McBills to state lawmakers. Since most legislators are in session only part of the year and often have no staff to do independent research, they're quick to swallow what ALEC serves up. [Mother Jones, September 2002, emphasis added]

ALEC Connects Conservative State Legislators With Corporate Lobbyists. As reported by Fortune: "The organization [ALEC], founded in 1973 and funded mostly by corporations and conservative foundations, exists to bring business-friendly state lawmakers together with lobbyists for corporations, including AT&T, Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart, and Johnson & Johnson. It drafts model bills related to its goals of free markets and limited government. Issues that ALEC has influenced include Arizona's anti-immigration law, tort reform in Mississippi, and the opposition to Net neutrality. Despite the intimate involvement of lobbyists, ALEC officials insist the organization is not a lobbying group, since it doesn't follow lawmakers to try to advance their bills. Instead, ALEC is a charity, a status it justifies because of its educational mission. The designation allows the group to collect tax-deductible contributions, and it eases lawmaker travel to ALEC events." [Fortune, 1/10/11, emphasis added, internal citations removed]

Two Out Of Every Three ALEC Members Is A Republican. As reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "[ALEC spokeswoman Reagan] Weber says ALEC's goal is to promote policies in line with Thomas Jefferson's principles of limited government, free markets, and federalism. Two thirds of its members are Republican, but she said the group does not coordinate with any political party." [Cleveland Plain Dealer, 4/3/11, emphasis added]

Corporations Like ExxonMobil Pay Millions Of Dollars A Year To Join ALEC And Draft "Model Bills" For State Legislators. As reported by NPR: "Here's how it works: ALEC is a membership organization. State legislators pay $50 a year to belong. Private corporations can join, too. The tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp. and drug-maker Pfizer Inc. are among the members. They pay tens of thousands of dollars a year. Tax records show that corporations collectively pay as much as $6 million a year. With that money, the 28 people in the ALEC offices throw three annual conferences. The companies get to sit around a table and write 'model bills' with the state legislators, who then take them home to their states." [, 10/29/10, emphasis added]

  • Largest Private Prison Company In America Helped ALEC Draft, Advance Legislation To Lengthen Prison Terms. As reported by Mother Jones: "In another instance of profitable policymaking, ALEC drafted a model 'truth in sentencing' bill that restricts parole eligibility for prisoners, keeping inmates locked up longer. One of the members of the task force that drafted the bill was Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison company, which stands to cash in on longer sentences. By the late 1990s, similar sentencing measures had passed in 40 states. 'There was never any mention that ALEC or anybody else had any involvement in this,' Walter Dickey, the former head of Wisconsin's prison system, told reporters after his state passed a version of the measure." [Mother Jones, September 2002, emphasis added]

ALEC: We Are Behind Approximately 1,000 Separate Pieces Of State Legislation In Any Given Year. From ALEC's "History" page: "Each year, close to 1,000 bills, based at least in part on ALEC Model Legislation, are introduced in the states. Of these, an average of 20 percent become law." [, accessed 4/28/11]

  • 2000: ALEC Got Over 3,000 Bills Introduced In State Legislatures. As reported by Mother Jones: "In 2000, according to the council, members introduced more than 3,100 bills based on its models, passing 450 into law." [Mother Jones, September 2002]
  • 2009: ALEC Got Over 100 Laws Passed Based On Its Model Legislation. As reported by Fortune: "In the 2009 legislative session, by ALEC's reckoning, state lawmakers introduced 826 bills the group conceived -- 115 of which made it into law. That's quite a record, and it's going to get stronger. One overlooked aspect of the Republican resurgence has been its revolution at the state level. The GOP picked up more than 700 seats in state legislatures and now controls 25 of those bodies outright, from 14 before November." [Fortune, 1/10/11]

ALEC Is Involved In Pushing Anti-Union Legislation In Multiple States. As reported by the New York Times: "Faced with growing budget deficits and restive taxpayers, elected officials from Maine to Alabama, Ohio to Arizona, are pushing new legislation to limit the power of labor unions, particularly those representing government workers, in collective bargaining and politics. [...] A group composed of Republican state lawmakers and corporate executives, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is quietly spreading these proposals from state to state, sending e-mails about the latest efforts as well as suggested legislative language. Michael Hough, director of the council's commerce task force, said the aim of these measures was not political, but to reduce labor's swollen power. 'Government budgets have grown and grown because of the cost of employees' pensions and salaries,' he said. 'Now we have to deal with that.'" [New York Times, 1/3/11, emphasis added]

ALEC: We're Not Lobbyists, We're Educators. As reported by NPR:

ALEC's [senior policy director Michael] Bowman ... hedges when asked if that means the unofficial drafting process is an effective way to accelerate the legislative process.

"It's not an effective way to get a bill passed," he says. "It's an effective way to find good legislation."

The difference between passing bills and "finding" them is lobbying. Most states define lobbying as pushing legislators to create or pass legislation. And that comes with rules. Companies typically have to disclose to the public what they are lobbying for, who's lobbying for them or how much they are spending on it.

If ALEC's conferences were interpreted as lobbying, the group could lose its status as a non-profit. Corporations wouldn't be able to reap tax benefits from giving donations to the organization or write off those donations as a business expense. And legislators would have a hard time justifying attending a conference of lobbyists.

Bowman says what his group does is educate lawmakers.

"ALEC allows a place for everyone at the table to come and debate and discuss," he says. "You have legislators who will ask questions much more freely at our meetings because they are not under the eyes of the press, the eyes of the voters. They're just trying to learn a policy and understand it." [, 10/29/11, emphasis added]

ALEC Is Funded By Prominent Right-Wing Foundations And Huge Corporations

ALEC Is Funded By Prominent Right-Wing Financiers. ALEC's funders include the Allegheny Foundation, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the Castle Rock Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. [Conservative Transparency, accessed 4/28/11]

ALEC Has Taken Well Over $1 Million From ExxonMobil. ALEC has taken at least $1,247,200 from ExxonMobil since 2001. [Conservative Transparency, accessed 4/28/11]

Corporations Like Philip Morris, Chevron, And Enron Have Funded ALEC Over The Years. As reported by Mother Jones: "In a report issued earlier this year, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council denounced ALEC as a vehicle for corporations to buy access to state legislatures -- often with a little help from taxpayers, who in many states foot the travel bill for legislators who attend ALEC meetings. The report found that the group's corporate donors -- some of whom pay membership dues of $50,000 a year -- have included Philip Morris, Amoco, Chevron, Enron, and the American Energy Institute." [Mother Jones, September 2002, emphasis added]

ALEC Has Board Members From AT&T, UPS, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart, Reynolds American Inc., State Farm, And Numerous Other Massive Corporations. In its report on ALEC, the American Association for Justice listed the following people among the "ALEC Private Sector Board Members" for 2010: Jim Epperson, Jr., AT&T; Pat Thomas, UPS; Sandy Oliver, Bayer Corporation; John Del Giorno, GlaxoSmithKline; Don Bohn, Johnson & Johnson; Mike Morgan, Koch Industries, Inc.; Kevin Murphy, ExxonMobil; Raymond Bracy, Wal-Mart; David Powers, Reynolds American Inc.; Derek Crawford, Kraft Foods, Inc.; Matt Echols, The Coca-Cola Company; Ken Lane, DIAGEO; Kelly Mader, Peabody Energy; Bob McAdam, Darden Restaurants, Inc.; Roland Spies, State Farm Insurance Companies. [, May 2010]