The President will deliver his State of the Union address tonight and there are plenty of people already predicting what he will say and why he’ll say it – you can read about it here, here, here, or any number of places. I imagine that he will address the Congressional gridlock that has been a defining feature of much of his Presidency. While Congressional dysfunction on the federal level is an issue because of inaction, it is an issue on the state level because of the kind of legislation being produced and who is crafting it. This is an issue entirely separate from the ugly practices of gerrymandering congressional districts – in terms of both state and federal elections, since state governments control both – and separate from the voter disenfranchisement efforts known as voter ID laws. This is rather an issue of process transparency that has its roots in an organization called The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC )
Documents about ALEC were recently leaked to The Guardian, which showcase the operations of the group. In short, ALEC is a group of conservative state legislators and representatives from large corporations that meet twice annually to craft legislative agendas. While lobbying is a constitutionally protected right, ALEC gives the corporation representatives a vote in this agenda shaping process. The companies are outnumbered by legislators at these voting sessions, but a “no” vote from fifty percent of the corporation representatives present can kill proposed legislation. They are given disproportionately large amounts of power. Power that they should not even have. This is behind-closed-doors, handshake-dealing, dirty politics.
My problem with ALEC is not necessarily the type of legislation and papers that the group produces, but rather the means in which it is advanced. One paper entitled “Tax Myths Debunked” calls the following claims myths: Raising tax rates will not harm economic growth, the distribution of income is increasingly inequitable, and austerity in the form of spending cuts will harm growth and employment. While those “myths” which they are attempting to debunk are central to my personal economic views, I can hardly take issue with an organization because they’re not Keynesian enough. The issue – as is the issue with the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee, among other organizations– is a lack of process transparency.
This lack of process transparency then rears its head in the legislation and research that ALEC puts out. In their report “Restoring the Balance of Power: Thirteen proposals to return sovereignty to the states,” ALEC, unsurprisingly, laments the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In a section labeled “Solution” the paper reads “state lawmakers should limit the damage done by the ACA and implement as little of it as possible in their states.” This recommendation for obstructionist action has come down from corporate representatives who are concerned with the bottom line of their parent organizations. They are not concerned for the health and well-being of the constituents in various state lawmakers’ districts. They care not for the access to health care. The lawmakers who comprise the legislative branch of ALEC are supposed to be concerned with their constituents, even those who did not vote for them. Even those of another party. Even those with socioeconomic status that does not allow them to donate to political campaigns. Constituents, not the biggest donors, should be the drivers of policy. It is up to those constituents, not the President in an annual address, to push the issue.
Money in politics has always been an issue, but at least it was available for public understanding. If you are so inclined, you can visit OpenSecrets.org or FollowTheMoney.org, and see where campaign contributions come from and which companies spend money on lobbying. ALEC will not be on there. ALEC manages to stay outside of the already murky waters of political money and influence.
I said earlier that the legislation that ALEC pushes is not of concern, but rather how they form it. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was vetted and backed by ALEC and their model bill has been implemented in some form in twenty six states. The leaked documents show that forty one companies, including giants like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Walmart, left ALEC after Trayvon Martin was killed. ALEC, and the organizations like it which we may not know about yet, must be monitored. There must be process transparency in the crafting of legislation. Now that ALEC is in the spotlight, the reentrance of the companies into their ranks should be monitored as well.
The issue of process transparency runs the gamut of government agencies from local town councils, to state and federal legislatures, to the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The issue is too systemic and too vague to be addressed by the State of the Union, but that does not mean it should be overlooked.