In the early afternoon of May 17, 2011, without much fanfare, People For The American Way’s Right Wing Watch posted an expose of an little group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. The story was picked up last night by Lawrence O’Donnell. Television news channels lack the format time for a full story of ALEC’s activities. For the full story go to pfaw.org, just before you go to alec.org and get a look at Mitch Daniels on their home page.
ALEC’s banner reads “Limited Government, Free Markets, Federalism” They do not mean the federalism we learned about in civics and history classes – an evolving relationship between the state governments and the federal government that James Madison asserted were “in fact but different agents and trustees of the people, constituted with different powers,” or that Alexander Hamilton said would balance each other because if the people’s rights “are invaded by either, they can make use of the other as the instrument of redress.” No. This federalism is actually the “New Federalsim” of Ronald Reagan – a devolution of the federal government. It used to be called “states’ rights” but that term conjures up visions of Jim Crow laws and a unacceptable imbalance of civil rights from one state or region to another. States’ rights is also the South’s preferred explanation for the Civil War. That’s intended to draw attention away from the fact that the “states’ right” they were fighting for was slavery.
The basic concept behind this New Federalism is that all citizens of the United States are not entitled to the same protections and rights in each of the fifty states, the District of Columbia and our numerous possessions abroad. Hence, it is acceptable in the mind of the New Federalist that people in one state have to present their birth certificates (if they can settle on which one is the legal one) in order to register to vote, but in another state all one needs is proof of residence. It is acceptable in their minds that some states will allow same-sex marriage, but other states don’t even have to recognize the legality of marriages performed in those states. As far as a New Federalist is concerned, we need to reverse every Supreme Court decision since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, through the appointment of John Roberts as Chief Justice.
You know those block grants that Paul Ryan wants to put in the federal budget instead of directed money to the states to fulfill federal programs? That’s a core tenet of the New Federalism. It was Ronald Reagan’s brainchild and it was a brat to the nth degree. Every state in the country had to raise its taxes to compensate for the loss of enough funding to cover federally mandated programs. They like to quote Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis for this one, in his dissent in New State Ice Co. V. Liebmann: “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” The funny thing is, this is exactly what Bill Clinton did in reforming welfare. Any state that had a really good idea for containing costs and improving services had a carte blanche to do so. Tommy Thompson, a Republican by the way, as governor of Wisconsin did an outstanding job with this one. Under Bush 43, the whole thing slid backwards. That’s the dichotomy of the New Federalists. The most successful use of their core value was under Clinton. The worst was under Reagan and Bush 43. Returning power to the states should not be done in such a way as it bankrupts the states.
So, there is this group called ALEC and it writes legislation that it then hands over to sympathetic state legislators who rally Republicans around it. Their power is based on a long series of lies – unions destroy jobs, the rich will trickle down their wealth to the rest of us, some group who aren’t “us” are responsible for all of America’s problems, the unemployed choose to be unemployed, America was founded as a Christian nation. But the reality is they believe in just one thing – “The business of America is business.” They like to forget that the man who said that, Calvin Coolidge, set in place the policies that resulted, just seven months after he left office, in The Great Depression. Then again, they really, really love to forget that it was Republicans who were in office in the periods leading up to our worst economic crises.
ALEC’s legislative agenda is very simple. It consists of repealing and/or defunding health care reform and blocking any attempts to create nationalized health; increasing corporate power while under cutting workers’ rights; a tax policy that relieves corporations, businesses and the wealthy of tax obligations; a voucher system for private schools so the state can pay for their kids’ educations; restricting voting rights by requiring photo ID’s and birth certificates and denying voting rights to students at out-of-state colleges; obstruction of environmental protections; punishing illegal workers and not punishing their employers. You will find these principles on the agendas of every state that has a Republican governor with Republican control of at least one house of the legislature.
Who funded the formation of ALEC? Three guesses and the first two Kochs don’t count. Yup, Charles Koch. Along with ExxonMobil, the Scaife family (banking, oil, Forbes 400), the Coors family (beer), the Bradley family (old self-sustaining foundation) and the Olin family (disbanded foundation).
And who runs ALEC? The board of directors includes representatives from Altria, AT&T, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Koch Industries, Kraft, PhRMA, Wal-Mart, Peabody Energy, and State Farm Insurance. ALEC has around 300 corporate partners and over 80% of their financing comes from corporations. The American Association for Justice says that the work is handled by the corporate defense law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon. They are the firm corporations go to when they need to be defended from lawsuits that claim their practices or products hurt people.
During the Clinton impeachment fiasco, Hillary said that there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Most of us laughed at her. We couldn’t believe that such a thing existed. We should have listened to her. Hillary was right and we had better be paying attention now. This conspiracy has managed to convince a whole lot of fools that “take back our country” means restoring the America of the 1950′s – all apple pie and nuclear families and everyone going to church on Sunday and blue birds in the clear skies while Daddy mowed that manicured lawn. In reality, the country that the people paying for all this legislative activity want to take us back to is the one that Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover were running – just before they collapsed the world’s economies.
Never forget that just after promising to never raise taxes on the rich at the Economic Club of New York, John Boehner shook hands with David Koch.