When the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci encouraged the left to begin a “long march through the institutions” he had two goals: co-opting neutral institutions in the cause of socialism and destroying institutions that could resist socialism. To a great extent his dictum has been followed in American and it has been successful. Academia is a monolithically left wing environment where conservatives are shut out and free speech relegated to designated areas on many major campuses.
Where the left can’t co-opt it seeks to harness the coercive power of the state to do its bidding. The saga of how the IRS violated federal law with impunity in order to target grassroots groups opposed to the administration is well known to all. What is less known is how the administration is going after donors to conservative groups as a way of shutting them down. The National Organization for Marriage had its confidential list of donors leaked by the IRS to the White House and the opponents of that organization so donors and their businesses could be targeted by supporters of homosexual marriage.
Now, under the leadership of Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) they have set their sights on another conservative group: the American Legislative Exchange Council.
What Is ALEC?
Most people have never even heard of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). It is a 501(c)3 educational non-profit membership organization made up of private sector entities such as businesses, trade associations and citizen groups, as well as nearly one-third of the nation’s state legislators. ALEC facilitates discussion between these various groups from nearly every state in order to promote active participation between citizens and businesses and the legislators who determine policies affecting them.
State legislators make hundreds, perhaps thousands of voting decisions each legislative session, and they cannot possibly be experts on every issue for which they press that red or green button. There exist several organizations that bring together business leaders, industry experts, research analysts and elected officials in order to educate lawmakers so they can be the most informed elected representatives possible for their constituents and communities. The Progressive States Network (PSN), National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Council of State Governments (CSG) and National Governors Association (NGA) are but a few examples of similar state-based policy organizations, but what sets the American Legislative Exchange Council apart from these other organizations is that its specific mission is to promote limited government, free markets and federalism. This philosophy is what has drawn the attention of Senator Durbin.
When George Zimmerman lawfully defended himself while being savagely beaten, Durbin saw an opportunity.
Over its forty-year history, ALEC members have adopted a number of policies that would be considered politically conservative. One of those policies was “Stand Your Ground,” following its overwhelmingly bipartisan passage in Florida in 2005. If legislators across the country wanted to expand self-defense laws in their own states, the ALEC membership voted to adopt “Stand Your Ground” as an appropriate model.
Durbin used the strawman of “stand your ground” laws to attack ALEC — never mind that this law had no bearing on the Zimmerman case.
To be clear, ALEC has no vote in the process, whether at organization meetings or in any legislature in the country. As a 501(c)3 organization, ALEC is prohibited for lobbying on behalf of legislation. It takes a legislator to introduce a bill in their state capitol. Legislation must survive a public vetting process of debates, amendments and votes, and lawmakers support or oppose legislation based on their own beliefs and those of their constituents. (Last week’s Colorado senate recall elections are a perfect example of what happens to a legislator if they don’t listen to the will of the people they represent.)
Why did Durbin target ALEC for harassment and not, say, the National Rifle Association? There are two reasons. If Durbin had tired this stunt with an organization like the NRA, he would have gimped off into the dark, whining. But as ALEC cannot lobby, Durbin, being at heart a sleazy bully, took the path that bullies often take of picking on someone who lacks the ability to defend themselves.
More importantly, ALEC drew the attention of Durbin because it is so effective.
For decades, the American Legislative Exchange Council has been a force in shaping conservative policies at the state level. Today, its impact is even more pervasive. Its legislative ideas are resonating in practically every area of state government, from education and health to energy, environment and tax policy. The group, which brings together legislators with representatives from corporations, think tanks and foundations to craft model bills, has rung up an impressive score. Roughly 1,000 bills based on ALEC language are introduced in an average year, with about 20 percent getting enacted.
Its very success, however, is beginning to prompt a backlash. While it has long been the target of ideological opponents, many media outlets are now portraying it as a kind of cabal that is secretly pulling the strings in state capitols nationwide. More recently, ALEC has become part of the broad litany of complaints among those castigating corporations for gaming democratic institutions in their favor.
ALEC officials, needless to say, scoff at such characterizations. But they recognize how potent they can be, given the growing anticorporate populism exemplified by the Occupy Wall Street movement. For the organization, it’s a bigger public relations headache than it’s ever experienced before. “The hook about some conspiracy or some secret organization,” says Chaz Cirame, ALEC’s senior director of membership and development, “is a lot better story than one about bringing state legislators together to talk about best practices around the country.”
Regardless of the looming PR challenge, ALEC’s own success is prima facie evidence of its growing influence. Its support for limited government and fewer regulations resonates with many state officials in the wake of the sweeping victories enjoyed by Republicans last fall. “The elections did have a huge impact in terms of membership and financial support for the organization,” says Duane Parde, president of the National Taxpayers Union and a former ALEC official. “ALEC was well positioned.”
These days, you can hardly think of a front-burner issue in states in which ALEC doesn’t play an important role:
The ALEC has for several years been the target of yet another campaign by a variety of leftist political groups and their tame politicians to pressure and intimidate both public and private sector members into dropping their membership and participation. The ultimate goal of this campaign is to deprive the organization not only of funding to operate, but also members with whom to exchange ideas and to once again chill the free speech of political opponents. Those organizations aligned against ALEC saw the media surrounding Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman as an opportunity to shame away their members once and for all.
On August 6, Dick Durbin sent letters of intimidation to 300 companies and private organizations, informing them that he would hold a hearing in September to examine “Stand Your Ground” laws and the organization he alleges is responsible for their widespread passage: the American Legislative Exchange Council.
From the Chicago Tribune:
As Durbin writes in his letter to ALEC donors:
“… Although ALEC does not maintain a public list of corporate members or donors, other public documents indicate that your company funded ALEC at some point during the period between ALEC’s adoption of model ‘stand your ground’ legislation in 2005 and the present day. … I am seeking clarification whether organizations that have funded ALEC’s operations in the past currently support ALEC and the model ‘stand your ground’ legislation.”
Durbin adds that in September he will convene a subcommittee hearing “to examine ‘stand-your ground’ laws, and I intend to include the responses to my letters in the hearing record. Therefore, please know that your response will be publicly available.”
So while the letter acknowledges that recipients have a right to participate in policy debates, Durbin’s intent is transparent: Renounce ALEC, and quit donating money, or I’ll shame you but good.
Durbin responded with a characteristically dishonest op-ed:
ALEC and its corporate and organizational supporters have every right to participate in the political process. My concern is with the lack of transparency. As a public official, when I take a position, I stand up to explain and defend it. I file annual financial disclosures, campaign finance reports and have to face the scrutiny of public opinion.
ALEC, however, has been secretive about its members and donors for years. It hides behind its nonprofit registration in order to obscure who actually stands behind its model laws.
Sunlight is better than secrecy when it comes to making laws. Just as the people of Illinois should be allowed to know the motives and interests behind the laws I support, so too should the people of this country when it comes to the laws passed in their states.
This is about transparency. It’s about starting a debate about the direction we’re headed in our country when it comes to guns and the permissible limits when it comes to the use of deadly force. And rather than stifling free speech, it’s about giving ALEC supporters an opportunity to step out from the shadows and explain to the American public their position on laws that impact the safety of our communities.
This, of course, is balderdash on stilts. ALEC isn’t “secretive” though it, like any other organization organized as a non-profit, has the right under federal law to keep its donor list confidential. There are lots of reasons for doing this and having them intimidated by Durbin and the papier-mâché puppet crowd is only one of them.
Durbin files annual disclosure statements because he’s required to do so. He seems unclear on the obligations of an elected official to disclose to his constituents who is buying or renting him by the hour and the obligations of a free and voluntary association of persons and businesses.
As ALEC doesn’t pass laws or lobby in favor of them, Durbin’s real argument is with the legislative process when it doesn’t go his way.
[As an aside here, when one reads Durbin’s letter one is reminded of Hamlet:
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
The fact that Durbin emphasizes that he obtained the list of some 300 donor organizations from “other public documents” leads one to believe that he is actually, like the NOM’s opponents, the beneficiary of a leak from the IRS.]
Durbin made it clear the answers provided would be made part of the public record during his hearing in the – wait for it – Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights ON Constitution Day. The irony of his dismantling our country’s protections of free speech and association and the careful balance of power between the state and federal governments in a subcommittee on the Constitution would be delicious if it weren’t so outrageous. (Note: the hearing may be postponed due to the Washington Navy Yard shootings.)
Our organizations recently received probing letters from your office – or understand that such letters were sent to a variety of private companies and citizen groups – demanding information about participation in the American Legislative Exchange Council. No existing law requires the disclosure of such information – nor would any such law be constitutional.
The First Amendment guarantees Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or assembly. The Supreme Court’s decision in NAACP v. Alabama ensures nonprofit organizations have the right to keep their membership lists private for fear of political intimidation.
While you may disagree with certain model policies adopted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC’s members have the right to free speech and association. To facilitate a candid and open marketplace of ideas, ALEC protects — and will continue to protect — the privacy of its members and those who participate in its meetings.
The questions posed by your letter parallel those asked by the Internal Revenue Service of other citizen groups the IRS deemed as politically conservative. Interrogating such organizations about the names of individual donors, purposes of organizational events, and contents of meetings violates rights ensured by the Constitution. Pressuring any private organization to answer such questions clearly exceeds your authority as an elected official.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) (D-IL) has made it his mission to twist the tragedy of the Trayvon Martin shooting and subsequent trial of George Zimmerman into an opportunity to politically attack a conservative-leaning non-profit organization and self-defense laws decided by the citizens and legislatures of the various states. His methods should not be tolerated nor allowed to set a precedent in America.
This is simply a variety of the age old attack called “waving the bloody shirt,” but it has taken an increasingly dangerous turn when a U.S. senator mailed threatening letters to private companies at taxpayer expense demanding to know of their political support and associations.
Any federal official should understand the implications of such a letter, especially during a time of questionable investigations of the press by the Department of Justice, the illegal spying of lawful U.S. citizens by the National Security Agency, and the politically motivated probing of citizen groups by the Internal Revenue Service.
What Can You Do?
Donate to ALEC
Usually I don’t do this type of thing, but consider making a donation to support ALEC. It would be the best way of showing Dick Durbin what free speech means. And it is tax deductible.
Let Durbin Know How Wrong He Is
In Durbin’s letter he closes by saying:
Thank you for your attention to this request. Please feel free to contact Dan Swanson or Stephanie Trifone on my staff at 202-224-2152 if you have any questions. I look forward to receiving your response.
Regardless of one’s political leanings or agreement with ALEC policies past or present, our nation was founded on the premise of a free people exercising their God-given rights to gather together with others of like mind, express their opinions and be active participants in a representative government. Bullying by a federal official against private citizens or groups is especially egregious. When the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear their government, there is tyranny.