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On Leap Day, it's Occupy ALEC

The Occupy protests may have dropped from the headlines, if nothing else, due to the lack of headline-grabbing violence against its protesters.
President George W. Bush speaking to ALEC in 2007.
President George W. Bush speaking to ALEC in 2007.

The Occupy protests may have dropped from the headlines, if nothing else, due to the lack of headline-grabbing violence against its protesters. Some of those Occupiers were arrested last night in an unsuccessful attempt to retake Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. Today, protests were planned in 70 cities, all targeting the American Legislative Exchange Council, which reminded me a bit of Citizens United -- but instead of allowing corporations to donate whatever they wish to a political candidate, ALEC helps those people corporations write their own laws.

When President Bush spoke to the group in 2007, this is how the White House website described ALEC: "The ALEC includes national task forces that serve as public policy laboratories where members develop model policies to use across the country."

Josh Harkinson at Mother Jones offered a different interpretation in his report about today's Occupy protests:

"It's an extremely secretive organization," says David Osborn, an organizer with Occupy Portland's Portland Action Lab, which is spearheading the national protest (known on Twitter as #F29 and #ShutDownTheCorporations). "Our goal is to expose the destructive role that it plays in our society."Founded in 1973 as a "nonpartisan membership organization for conservative state lawmakers," ALEC brings together elected officials and corporations like Walmart, Bank of America, and McDonald's to draft model legislation that often promotes a right-wing agenda. It claims to be behind 10 percent of bills introduced in state legislatures.

Now, "American Legislative Exchange Council" is hardly the kind of thing that would fit on a tabloid headline, and it's not well-known enough to cause the Republican base to get all defensive. Perhaps they should be, given how much of an impact ALEC has made in states like Arizona, where it drafted that state's infamous immigration law, SB 1070. And that's just the tip of the iceberg:

"ALEC is like a speed-dating service for lonely legislators and corporate executives," says Mark Pocan, a Democratic state assemblyman in Wisconsin, where ALEC played a role in last year's efforts to cripple public-sector unions. "The corporations write the bills and the legislators sign their names to the bills. In the end, we're stuck with bad laws and nobody knows where they came from."

Mother Jones first wrote about ALEC in 2002. An excerpt is after the jump.

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. In 2000, according to the council, members introduced more than 3,100 bills based on its models, passing 450 into law.Not surprisingly, many of the bills benefit the companies that helped write them. Consider ALEC's "Environmental Audit Privilege," a measure that relieves companies of legal responsibility for their own pollution. The bill got its start in 1992, when Colorado regulators fined the Coors Brewing Company for smog-inducing air emissions at several plants. ALEC was quick to respond, drafting a measure to prevent firms from being fined if they report environmental violations at their facilities, and to keep such disclosures secret. Coors is a corporate member of ALEC, and company executive Allan Auger is a past chairman of the group, to which the Coors family's Castle Rock Foundation is also a donor. Last year, Kentucky and Oregon passed audit-privilege laws like the one drawn up by ALEC.