When Anderson Cooper’s mother, the designer and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, reached her 91st birthday, they began a correspondence, breaking a wall of silence between them. This 2016 conversation covered life in the spotlight, suicide, money, and grieving for a parent and a child. Vanderbilt Died in June at age 95.
In recent weeks, a number of corporations have decided to end their membership in ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. Many have attributed their departure to ALEC’s position on climate change issues. The organization, which drafts model state-level legislation, maintains it takes no position on climate. But ALEC policies on energy and the environment have drawn criticism. And many remain concerned that the organization represents a troubling trend of big money in politics. But others point to ALEC’s usefulness as a tool for getting legislation through to states, given Washington’s ongoing gridlock. A conversation about ALEC: how it works, who’s behind it, and why some worry about its role in shaping American politics.
- Lisa B. Nelson Chief executive officer, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
- Tom Hamburger National desk reporter for the Washington Post. He covers money and politics.
- Miles Rapoport President of Common Cause. He is also a former secretary of state and state legislator in Connecticut.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. After Chairman Eric Schmidt said on this program that Google was leaving ALEC because of its stance on climate change, other companies followed suit. This is not the first time, ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, has seen controversy. It took heat for its backing of Florida's Stand Your Ground Law, but it's remained a powerful force in crafting legislation across the country.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in studio to talk about ALEC and its future, chief executive officer of ALEC, Lisa Nelson, Tom Hamburger of The Washington Post and Miles Rapoport of Common Cause. And throughout the hour, we'll take your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com or you can join us on Facebook or Twitter. Welcome. I'm glad you're here.
MS. LISA B. NELSONThanks for having us, Diane.
MR. TOM HAMBURGERThanks, good to be with you.
MR. MILES RAPOPORTGlad to be here.
REHMGood to see you all. Lisa Nelson, give us some background on ALEC, how it began and what its aims are.
NELSONSo most people don't really know that ALEC was established 41 years ago by a group of people who were mostly focused on ideas and on an exchange on ideas, an exchange of free market, you know, limited government principle and thought if we could create a dialogue or an organization that would enhance a dialogue between legislators, both Democrat and Republican, nonpartisan legislative body that could ask questions, be educated on the issues and actually craft model policy to enhance and create jobs around their states and provide an opportunity for legislators to kind of compare notes with other states, what best practices are working, what didn't work, how are things moving.
NELSONSo ALEC is an organization, 41 years old, that has worked tirelessly to promote those free market limited government and federalist principles in that area. We have about 300 kind of private sector members. We have close to 2,000 public sector members to the makeup of the organization is left -- is kind of two-sided, if you will, with the public and private sector. And that's the beauty of the organization. I noticed at the beginning, it was described as a lobbying organization.
NELSONOne thing, to be very careful about is we don't lobby. We create that model policy. Once the policy exists and is put up on our website for all to see, then it's up to the legislators, wherever they want to, to pick up that model policy and take it forward. So we're not a lobbying organization, but instead kind of a -- we're a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization that develops that policy.
REHMNow, tell me where ALEC's money comes from.
NELSONSo it's -- I would say it's probably a breakdown of about 40 percent foundation, think tank and individual donors and about 60 percent from corporate sponsors, which includes think tanks and small businesses, large businesses across the board to support those endeavors.
REHMLisa Nelson, she's chief executive officer of ALEC. Tom Hamburger, as one who has been reporting on money and politics for The Washington Post, what does Lisa's description of ALEC mean to you? What does she leave out? What would you add to it?
HAMBURGERI think one of the underlying explanations for ALEC being of such -- so much in the news, of such concern that Eric Schmidt volunteered his words on it on your show, making some news a few weeks ago, is that ALEC has been a remarkably successful organization for its members and its corporate sponsors. Corporate lobbying has increasingly moved to the states, in part because of the dysfunction, which is -- in Washington, which is frequently a topic on this show.
HAMBURGERAs that has happened, getting to know, getting to meet, getting to communicate with state legislators is increasingly important for companies and ALEC provides a remarkable kind of one-stop shop for that communication. So I would list that as number one reason for ALEC's success and growth and recent prominence. The other, I'd add, is that the organization has been remarkably effective for those member organizations.
HAMBURGERA few years ago, documents were released to the public by Common Cause and later by the Center For Media and Democracy after their own inquiries of ALEC that showed -- these were hundreds of pages, but they did show -- and 2009, I think, was the year that ALEC claimed credit for having hundreds -- I think it's 800-some model bills introduced in state legislatures around the country and of that number, 109 passed and became law.
HAMBURGERIf you're a lobbyist in the corporate space and you look at that record, those numbers are going to be impressive.
REHMLisa talked about the fact that ALEC is not an lobbying organization. How would you describe it?
HAMBURGERWell, there is -- this is a discussion that lawyers more steeped in the internal revenue service code than I have debated. I can tell you that as I talk to lay people and as I listen to those who have challenged ALEC's status as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization that does not lobby, it doesn't seem to square with the activities that they engage in, not only writing model bills, which is -- but actually one of the things the document released showed us a few years ago is that ALEC has a very vibrant and active communications system with legislators.
HAMBURGERThey keep track of good bills and problematic bills and they are an organization that are at least seen in the corporate space and by the corporate lobbyists that I talk to as a very effective arm or outreach for corporate lobbying. Now, does that make the legal description? Well, there's an argument that your other guest here, I think, can describe on the legal fine points. Practically, corporate lobbyists will tell you ALEC membership is a vital part of their government relations effort.
REHMTom Hamburger of The Washington Post. And turning to you, Miles Rapoport of Common Cause. As president of Common Cause, how do you interpret ALEC's activities?
RAPOPORTWell, I think we have a sort of a very complicated legal theory here, which can be boiled down to if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. And that is that when ALEC has done -- and it has been, in a number of respects, effective -- is to introduce model bills to give legislators talking points, to bring them to conferences where they mingle with ALEC's corporate sponsors to allow those corporations to effective lobby to the legislators, writing help, writing talking points for testimony.
RAPOPORTThose are all the things that I, as a former legislator, absolutely associate with what a lobbying firm would do or what a lobbyist would do. So I think it's for the IRS, obviously, to determine. We filed our complaint based on a huge amount of documentation that showed that ALEC doesn't just put up a model bill on their website and let the legislators take it from there. It's very much involved in the process and I think that's lobbying.
REHMWhat about questions of where money comes from?
RAPOPORTWell, Lisa was very clear that, you know, a majority of the funding comes from corporate sponsors. Since ALEC is mainly a 501 (c)(3), I believe you have a 501 (c)(4) now, Lisa, but, you know, those contributions to ALEC are tax deductible, but, in fact, they are to advance a corporate agenda in the state legislatures. And so I think what happens, the problem -- let me just say what I think the larger problem is.
RAPOPORTI think our democracy's in trouble from a flood of large financial donations into the system. Some of the money comes in through campaign contributions. Some of it comes in through independent expenditures during campaigns, but a chunk of it comes in through ALEC where, you know, lots and lots of money is coming from corporations to advance their corporate agendas.
RAPOPORTALEC is a vehicle for that and I think, overall, ordinary citizens, with great justification, feel left on the sidelines that corporations and the big money spenders are dominating the field.
REHMThere's been a lot of talk about the Koch brothers, Lisa, and the extent to which the Koch brothers who, for the most part, are involved in conservative approaches to legislation and to governance, concerns about their heavy financial involvement in ALEC. How do you respond?
NELSONWell, first I want to just clarify something on the point on lobbyists and ALEC lobbying. Our members are legislators so if you think that a legislator taking a piece of legislation and deciding to move it through their state assembly or their state caucus is lobbying, then, you know, be that as it may. ALEC doesn't have state lobbyists. We don't have people on the ground.
NELSONWe don't act -- we don't engage once that model policy exists. So, you know, whether or not something passes and I thank Tom for pointing out the success of our legislation over the years, but that's something that the legislators take and move forward on their own. With respect to the Koch brothers and our foundation support, you know, from what I understand of the Koch brothers, they're involved in and support free market, limited government types of measures, whether it's on healthcare, education, they're looking for a lot of the similar kind of solutions that we are that are not engaged.
NELSONAnd I hear the music, but, you know, we would gladly have their support and appreciate it.
REHMAll right. And we'll talk more about that support when we come back. Short break. Stay with us.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, we're talking about the American Legislative Exchange Council with its Chief Executive Officer Lisa Nelson, Tom Hamburger of the Washington Post, Miles Rapoport. He's president of Common Cause. And Lisa, just before the break you were talking about the Koch Brothers and the monies that they put into ALEC. I'd be interested in how much we're talking about.
NELSONYou know, I don't have the specific numbers here but when I describe 60 percent of our corporate sponsorship and 40 percent of our foundation I would, you know, include them in that foundation side. Our budget is probably a lot smaller than -- and our 990s are on the website -- but it's been described on this program that we're some vast large organization. Our budget is a lot smaller than...
REHMWhat is the total budget?
NELSONProbably somewhere around 7 million.
REHMSeven million. And Tom Hamburger, of that 7 million, are there other monies that do not come in directly but somehow come in in other ways?
HAMBURGERDiane, we've been looking at ALEC's finances for some time and do appreciate that the 990s are now posted on the website which is a new bit of transparency which is welcomed to us. But as looking through the documents and talking to members, we found a couple of things. In talking with ALEC, they emphasize, as Lisa just did, that the actual members are members of state -- they're state legislators. And they pay dues of about $50 a year.
HAMBURGERCorporate sort of auxiliary membership or participation in ALEC taskforces runs a wide range. The official price list on ALEC can take you anywhere from 7,000 -- a thousand dollars -- several thousand dollars. But if you look at some of the internal documents and talk with some of the corporate affairs folks, there are some companies that are paying 300,000, 100,000, six-figure donations on an annual basis to participate. We don't know exactly how much Koch Industries is paying. They're just one of the couple of hundred corporate members.
HAMBURGERBut we do know that corporations -- that they're just sort of price list so that if you want to engage with legislators on a taskforce, which is where legislators meet with corporate lobbyists effectively, corporate representatives, there's a fee that's charged. If you want to have a special workshop on a topic of interest, the fee, according to some of the documents, is about $40,000. And we saw cases where major oil and energy companies were paying to run workshops for legislators on topics of keen interest.
HAMBURGERSo it's a little hard for us to know overall. We don't have a sense of the overall ALEC budget except that the state legislator, the official members provide a very, very small single digit percentage as portion of the budget.
REHMTom Rapoport -- sorry, Miles Rapoport, how does that differ from other organizations who are trying to influence both state and national legislators?
RAPOPORTWell, two points. One is it's perfectly legitimate to try to influence state legislators and state legislatures. Many organizations do it but they do it and file lobbying expense reports so that they are more transparent. If you're a 501C3 and you arguably don't do any lobbying then it's a very different situation.
RAPOPORTThe key Tom mentioned is, I think, on the legislative taskforces of ALEC's which are closed to the public and where corporate members and legislators sit together, have equal votes so the corporate members -- corporate partners are in fact voting in those taskforces. And what comes out is, you know, a tremendous amount of very conservative, very free-market-oriented legislation that also is absolutely in sync with the corporate agenda of those partners.
RAPOPORTAnd some of the ones that I just mentioned that are on ALEC's website are capital gains tax elimination bill, a Civil Acts Rights Act which would cancel all affirmative action programs that are based on any form of racial or other kind of things, a Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act which says that if the City of Seattle wants to pass a living wage of $15, the legislature, if ALEC had its way in Washington, would say, no, you cannot do that. We are preempting you from paying a minimum wage or a living wage.
RAPOPORTAnd lastly I'll just point out the Electricity Freedom Act which repeals renewable energy standards. So all these are model legislations which dovetail very much with the corporate partners who pay, as Tom said, not $7,000 but in many cases 40 to 100, even more thousand dollars. I think that's a pipeline for corporate influence that is troubling, in my view.
REHMHere's an email from -- let me just find it -- from Congressman Mark Pocan of Wisconsin who says, "As a former state legislator I'm very familiar with ALEC's work. I've crashed ALEC conventions twice. I've seen firsthand how they lobby and influence legislators. Lobbying legislators introduce their model bills and helping them pass those bills is nearly their entire focus. They are essentially a dating service for lonely legislators to meet big money corporations. Unfortunately what is conceived in their relationship benefits the corporations more than constituents." Lisa, how would you respond to that?
NELSONWell, a couple of things. I'm smiling here because, you know, so many people will say that they can't have access or they don't have access to ALEC meetings. The congressman and his predecessor now Chris Taylor in Wisconsin have been coming to our meetings now for several years. So for anyone who says they don't know what goes on behind closed doors, we are an open, you know, and transparent organization and have been moving and evolving that way over the last three years.
NELSONAnd it's my goal kind of moving forward to look for ways to be more open and to come on shows like this and talk about who we are. You know, I don't think he crashed. I think he registered and he came in and participated in the discussions. Whether he agreed or disagreed with the principles is a matter for us to talk about. But what we really try to do is provide that forum. We're really saddened at the fact that Democrat legislators over the years have been intimidated and frightened out of belonging to ALEC because we want to be a nonpartisan organization where pro-business Democrats feel comfortable talking with fellow legislators about the issues.
NELSONSo, you know, I'm glad that Chris Taylor comes to our meetings. You know, I wish that she would take away some of the free-market principles and the congressman's comments and just kind of show me that, in fact, he did have access then and he still continues to have access now.
HAMBURGERLisa's comment caused me to remember my efforts over some years to cover ALEC and I think she's right in describing a new era of openness. But it is not what we experienced until very recently. Reporters were not included or invited inside the sessions, very difficult, impossible almost to crack the taskforce meetings. That's starting to change. And it is a noticeable difference to us. And several of my colleagues at the Post attended the last ALEC meeting in Washington in December.
HAMBURGERI'd add, however, that one of them -- our columnist Dana Milbank was invited but was told he could really -- the only open session was the lunch meeting. And he was complaining that he was met with security when he tried to enter or crash some of the other events.
REHMAnd to you, Miles Rapoport, have you ever attended one of ALEC's sessions?
RAPOPORTNo, I have not. I didn't try.
RAPOPORTBut I did see ALEC's work close up when I was a Connecticut legislature -- legislator in that there would be shortly before the state legislative session convened, a flood of bills. I'll give you one interesting example where I think in -- go back to 1985, '86 -- so I'm dating myself. All of a sudden 20 bills were introduced to make English the official language of the State of Connecticut. And all of us who saw that said, okay, ALEC's mailing has arrived. And what many of the -- mostly Republican legislators, occasionally a Democrat or two, would do was just give their aids the package of ALEC's legislation and say, go file it for me. So that's why you would see 20 bills come at the same time.
RAPOPORTBut what seemed to be kind of, you know, an interesting statement was actually designed to prevent the State of Connecticut from printing ballots in Spanish, from doing absentee ballot or voter registration in Spanish. It was to ban the use of multilingual processes. And I think that was very, very negative. So I'm glad for the increased transparency but I think it's still an extreme agenda that is mainly a corporate agenda but also a Koch Brothers ultraconservative agenda that I think is very damaging to the wellbeing of our country.
REHMWhat about that, Lisa? Is it an ultraconservative agenda that, as Miles Rapoport says, is damaging to the country?
NELSONWell, if you believe in free markets and you believe in federalism, as Thomas Jefferson did, then, you know, I guess that's what we are. I don't see us as an extreme organization. I have been involved in public policy and corporate business, you know, for 30 years. And I find the work that ALEC does is good and creates jobs. You know, the membership, that corporate membership that keeps being referred to represents 33 million jobs in this country so...
REHMWhy do you call them an extreme organization, Miles?
RAPOPORTI think some of the legislation that has -- that comes out of ALEC and is on their website as model legislation is really of the extreme end of a conservative and free-market agenda. The bills that I just mentioned and, you know, the issues that has brought us here, the whole climate-change issue, you know, on one hand ALEC says, well, we're not -- we don't have sort of a position about climate change.
RAPOPORTBut if your position is that governments should not do anything about climate change and any requirements of using alternative fuels or conservation are negative and to be opposed that, I think, is supporting climate change. I think that's extreme.
HAMBURGERJust one quick thought maybe to cut through some of the label disagreements here. If it is extreme, it's important to note that ALEC's affiliated corporate participants are really the main stream company's backbones of sort of American corporate life. Now they may be behaving in an extreme way but we should remember that until recently Google -- until three weeks ago on your show Google was a member of ALEC and a participant, Facebook, other major tech companies, Bank of America, Wal-Mart, Verizon, Microsoft and so forth have been members.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." For those listeners who did not tune in that day, I want to read for you the statement made by Eric Schmidt who was the CEO of Google. He says, I think the -- when asked why Google was going to drop their affiliation with ALEC, he said that ALEC was twisting science in the pursuit of its political goals at the state level. And here's his quote. He says, "I think the consensus within the company" Google that is "was that Google's affiliation with ALEC was some sort of mistake. And so we're trying not to do that in the future."
REHMHe says "The facts of climate change are not in question anymore. Everyone understands climate change is occurring. The people who oppose it are really hurting our children and grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. And so we should not be aligned with such people. They're just literally lying." Now, I understand, Lisa, that ALEC has come out and said, we don't have a position on climate change. At the same time I gather there has been a move by ALEC to move against the creation of solar energy.
NELSONNo. You know, it's really interesting to me and I don't think you followed up with the fact that Eric Schmidt has just put something out in the Wall Street Journal that says that he actually has had constructive conversations with ALEC -- and that was published three days ago -- on...
REHMIn the past he has said that.
NELSONYeah, just -- no, no. He put it out just recently in correction to some of his comments saying that just in our August meeting in Dallas that we had constructive conversations on climate change with Google and several other organizations and companies. The other thing that's interesting to me is that it's reported and repeatedly talked about, the fact that we had, you know, Heartland Institute and CFACT at our meeting talking about, you know, climate change.
NELSONWhat's not reported in those stories is the fact that the Environmental Defense Fund was also in those conversations and participating in our conversations. So I go back to my original comments that what we really want to do is foster that dialogue between all sides with respect to climate change We, as an organization, specifically do not comment on climate change. What we have issue with is government mandates and subsidies that enable the government to kind of pick winners and losers as they look for energy solutions.
NELSONWhat we encourage and what we would love to see more of, and several companies are stepping up, especially ones that are sitting on cash reserves, is that they step up and look for those solutions to affordable energy, reliable energy in all ways. So we would really encourage seeking out all different solutions to the issue.
REHMHow much money would ALEC be putting behind the development of solar energy?
NELSONWe don't put money behind anything. We have nine different taskforces that look at education, at health care, at energy, at tax reform...
REHMAt energy, so what would that position be regarding energy?
NELSONI think that probably -- you know, I mean, each of our taskforces represents 30 or 40 companies, small businesses and interests in that group. So the division of that would break down to, you know, the percentage of the organization.
REHMI'll be interested to hear more about that when we come back from a short break from Lisa Nelson of ALEC, Tom Hamburger of the Washington Post, Miles Rapoport of Common Cause. Short break, right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're going to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Lewisburg, Pa. Hi there, Dave. You're on the air.
DAVEHi. Thanks for taking my call.
DAVEI just want to say I felt that Lisa Nelson's introduction to ALEC was deceiving. ALEC drafted voter suppression laws that have been enacted throughout the country. And these voter suppression laws really have nothing to do with either limited government or free markets. The voter ID laws ultimately will lead to more government oversight and potentially national ID cards. And national ID cards are something that true supporters of limited government have a long history of opposing.
DAVEALEC -- the voter ID laws, to me, just represent an example of ALEC being a conservative organization, fighting for traditional power establishments that have really nothing to do with either limited government or free market.
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. Lisa?
NELSONWell, I'm sorry, Dave, that you feel that way. You know, what we do and the process that our legislators go through, as they develop model policy, is kind of -- I mean it's a kind of a regular order type of thing to look at. Does -- when a legislator brings a piece of legislation or model policy or an idea to ALEC, they walk through that process, they discuss it, they deliberate it and then at the very end of the process there's a kind of a double-check on whether, you know, the Federalists and states' rights kind of objective of the organization is met.
NELSONSo I'm afraid, you know, we're going to have to agree to disagree on this. We really do focus and try to focus on limited government, free markets. And I will say, you know, I'm really here to talk about the future of ALEC and not the past. So, you know, I'd love to talk about kind of innovative ideas around health care and around telecom and around the things that are going to be coming up down the road that we can help work with our legislators on.
REHMAt the same time, Lisa, our caller raised the issue of voter suppression. Now, while that may not be something you're thinking about in the future, that is the impression of something that's gone on. Miles Rapoport?
RAPOPORTYeah, I think that there's a, you know, kind of two parts of the ALEC personality -- or has been. And one part is to serve the corporations through those task forces on free market and antiregulatory and antigovernment and anti-tax perspectives. But there has also been a very strong ideological conservative agenda, which has included voter ID laws, included the English-only laws I talked about, included stand-your-ground laws.
RAPOPORTSo there have been many, many laws that ALEC has supported in the past -- maybe it's evolving -- that I think have absolutely attempted to hold down and discourage people from voting and participation.
NELSONYeah, from what I understand -- and I'm literally less than a month on the job -- we don't have model policies on voter ID. And you can go to our website. There -- it might have been debated, it might have been discussed historically, but right now we do not have model policy on election, voting, on immigration, self-defense, or a voter ID.
NELSONSo as a part of our kind of shift a few years ago, a lot of those issues were taken out of the mission and the scope of ALEC.
HAMBURGERMy quick question to Lisa is my look at ALEC records in years past showed that there was a good deal of activity around voter ID, immigration issues, stand your ground and some other social issues as well. How recently have things changed? And is it ALEC's policy now not to engage, not to participate on those social issues?
NELSONThat's exactly right, Tom. I think as a result of, you know, what -- as a mother of two kids, the tragedy of Trayvon Martin and stand your ground, we took a look -- a very hard look, internally, about, you know, where -- what does ALEC stand for and what do we want to do? And I think it was about three years ago. I could be off by a couple of months. But ALEC doesn't engage in social issues. We don't have model policy on any of those issues. And my understanding is that all of those have been taken down and are not being pursued at ALEC by either the legislators or any of our members.
RAPOPORTI think this -- it's interesting. As the corporations that have left ALEC recently, I think there's a struggle because on the one hand they're -- ALEC has been a vehicle for advancing their corporate agenda, which they are absolutely entitled to do. They should record their lobbying expenditures in doing it. But there has been a very, very kind of extreme libertarian cast to much of ALEC's legislation in the past. And maybe it's shifting.
RAPOPORTBut I think that this is -- those have social implications, as Eric Schmidt pointed out. I mean if you're going to say, "Well, we're not -- we understand the climate is changing. We're not sure whether it's good or bad and we're not sure whether it's natural or anthropogenic," which, in English, is manmade, which is on their website. "But we oppose any forms of standards or legislation or regulations to make sure that we're moving on climate change."
RAPOPORTTo me that is an economic agenda, but it is also a social agenda because it is affecting our climate. If you're opposing affirmative action, that is a social agenda. It's impacting people for whom those issues are very important.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Mark, in Silver Spring, Md. You're on the air.
MARKThank you, Diane. Great show. A couple of years ago or so there was an excellent expose on CBS about ALEC. And three critical points, they liked -- ALEC writes the template form for legislation, they give this template to state legislators around the country, who then submit the template as original legislation. Now, legislators are sworn to serve the public interest, all of the public interest. And not to serve the private interest of Exxon Mobile.
REHMAll right. It would seem that those would be your concerns.
RAPOPORTYes. I mean, legislators -- all legislators, liberal legislators, conservative legislators talk to outside groups. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. But I think in ALEC there is a difference in degree that approaches becoming a difference in kind, of the, you know, intermingling of corporate interests on the task force and the, you know, conferences, which are underwritten by the corporations, the workshops, which are underwritten by the corporations.
RAPOPORTThere's one thing to talk to organizations outside and get ideas, etcetera, but this is sort of a kind of -- well, dating service may be a bad word for it. But there's a closeness and an intermingling here that I think crosses a line that we should be concerned about.
REHMTom Hamburger, how concerned are you about the state lawmaking process, if, in fact, ALEC provides a template and those key provisions are given to state legislators and they go from there?
HAMBURGERAnd several years ago I worked on a story that looked at environmental legislation related to EPA and carbon emissions that had passed in multiple states or that had been introduced in multiple states. And what we found was that in state after state -- I think 16 at a minimum -- the language was word for word that out of the ALEC model bill. I don't know -- and Lisa can address this -- I don't think ALEC disputes that it establishes this library and encourages state legislator members to introduce this legislation.
HAMBURGERI wanted to mention two quick things. One is that a Harvard University Study recently looked at ALEC's success in state legislators. Where is it where they're getting most of their laws passed? Whether it's on the environment or affirmative action or this sort of regulatory economic issues we're talking about. Conservative red states top the list. But there was a second factor that was significant to me.
HAMBURGERSmaller states with part-time legislators were very reliant on ALEC because ALEC provides the legislative language, legislative counsel, in effect, does the work that a legislator often doesn't have time to do. So getting a piece of legislation that has been authored by a corporate member of a task force and having it submitted verbatim, I think that's significant.
REHMHere's a tweet from Margaret, who says, "Trouble that organizations like ALEC, which work against social welfare, get tax preference as social welfare groups." Lisa?
NELSONWell, a couple of things I would say. Number one, we're very proud of the fact that we've been able to be as effective as we had. And there are several organizations that have model policy or model legislation. NCSL has what they call model language.
NELSONNCSL, the National State Legislative Counsel. CSG, the Counsel of State Government, suggested state legislation. A new organization that I'm sure Miles is familiar with, ALICE is putting out and trying to build -- it's kind of the left-leaning ALEC, if you will -- and appropriately named ALICE -- is putting out things. Progressive State Networks is another one that has model legislation. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers has model legislation. So this is not something that just ALEC is working on.
NELSONI think that's a part of the process and having as many voices -- and like I said, we would welcome more voices in, you know, is -- that's a part of the process. As to your questions on social welfare, we're really interested in one of the big projects that we're focusing on for this coming year, is over-criminalization and the crowding in prisons and being kind of right on crime.
NELSONAnd taking a look at are there things going on where people are being accused and then imprisoned for, you know, things in one state that might be legal and things in another that are considered more serious. So we'll be focusing on that. I think we're looking at anything that falls under that rubric, again, of limited government and free markets.
REHMAll right. And joining us now is John Nichols. He's a writer for The Nation Magazine. He joins us from Worcester. He has covered ALEC for more than a decade. John Nichols, in your coverage of ALEC, what have you noticed about the impact they have on states?
MR. JOHN NICHOLSWell, it's a huge impact. And frankly -- I very much appreciate being a part of the show and hearing all these good voices. But I think that one element of this that people should be very conscious of -- and Tom touched on it a moment ago when he talked about part-time legislators -- is that many people come to state legislatures as representatives of their community, of their neighborhood, of a relatively small group of people.
MR. JOHN NICHOLSAnd when they tap into one of these national organizations -- and I think ALEC is the preeminent one in this grouping -- and particularly when that organization links those legislators, coming from the grassroots, to corporate interests that have goals, things they want to achieve, you break a relationship between a state legislature and their citizens and have them airing upward toward national agendas, often corporate agendas that are far from where they represent.
MR. JOHN NICHOLSAnd I have been covering legislatures across the country -- heard a tremendous number of complaints, often from liberal legislators and Democrats, but also from some conservatives, who say, look, it used to be that we could come here and have a real dialogue. We could have a real debate about issues and somebody on the left, somebody on the right. But now there's a rigidity to it. There's these model pieces of legislations. There's sort of a pressure to fit into a playbook.
MR. JOHN NICHOLSAnd I think it's incredibly damaging. I do not think it's just about Democrat and Republican or left and right. I think it is about creating a circumstance where citizens have less say with their legislature -- legislators at times than do corporations that are very distant and very delinked from the state.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So your concern or what you hear from state legislators is their concerned over corporate interests being brought far more to the fore than perhaps that of their own constituents?
NICHOLSUnquestionable that's the case. And ALEC has been, you know, very, very supportive of free trade deals, which, you know, may be very popular in Washington, but aren't always popular at the grass roots around the country. ALEC has been supportive in the past and Lisa talks about the organization evolving. But in the past on voter ID laws on a host of other measures. And it's important to understand that ALEC's evolution on some of these issues, has been driven by massive protests by people who really have objected to this.
NICHOLSBut at the end of the day, ALEC remains an organization that takes goals and proposals of multi-national corporations and frames them out in the form of legislation that is then spread out across the states by legislators, again, who seem to be erring more away from their communities, not toward their communities.
REHMJohn Nichols, one last question. Briefly, do you have any idea exactly how much money the Koch brothers are putting into ALEC?
NICHOLSYeah, I wouldn't begin to speak for the Koch brothers on their financing of ALEC. But what I would say is this, there's never been any question that the Koch brothers have been strong supporters for a very, very long time -- and Koch Industry -- strong supporters of ALEC.
NICHOLSIn fact, when you look at some of the task forces of ALEC, there -- the people that are highly involved in them are often from Koch Industries or are former Koch employees. And so I don't think that it would be realistic to suggest that ALEC exists as something separate from the Koch brothers. I think there's a deep, deep connection there.
REHMAll right. John Nichols, he's a writer for The Nation Magazine. Thanks for joining us.
REHMLisa, how do you respond to concerns John raised about legislators at the state level coming in relatively new and then having all this work done for them?
NELSONYou know, I think there's two sides to that. Legislators really appreciate and look for education on all issues from all sides. You know, I have to believe that when they get elected that that's what they want to do, is learn more about the issues. So we try to provide that for them. On the corporate side, I also want to believe that corporations are going to be motivated by their consumers and by their shareholders.
NELSONAnd so when a corporation is pursuing a specific public policy agenda, you know, that's on behalf of their shareholders who are their constituents. So I think we're…
NELSONI think we're conflating exactly the motives here. We're kind of trying to confuse the motives.
REHMOkay. I want to give Miles the last very brief word about your concerns regarding ALEC.
RAPOPORTTwo things. One, I do think that the corporations have -- is this one avenue of the over-influence of corporations in American life. And I think that's a problem. And I corporations are obviously considering whether they want to be associated.
REHMMiles Rapoport, Tom Hamburger, Lisa Nelson, very interesting and informative discussion on ALEC. Thank you. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
How the remote island became one of the world's most important laboratories for understanding climate change.
Democratic presidential hopefuls take the stage for two nights of debate. Winners, losers and what we learned about the state of the race.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a writer for New York Times Magazine, has a new book called "Fleishman Is In Trouble."