Crusade against ALEC continues with pointless report

Earlier this week I noted that self-styled campaign finance and government ‘reform’ group Common Cause had filed a complaint with the IRS demanding that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) be stripped of its tax-exempt status as a 501(c)3 organization. The complaint is unlikely to get far as it’s based on a frivolous interpretation of laws defining lobbying activity, and is simply the latest effort by Common Cause and their ‘reform’ allies to harass ideological opponents.

What I didn’t mention was that it was becoming evident that the Common Cause complaint was part of a well-coordinated campaign against ALEC by the ‘reform’ community and others who simply oppose ALEC’s ideological agenda, which favors limited government, free markets, and conservative ideas. A few days before the Common Cause complaint, the liberal group Center for Media and Democracy launched a campaign against ALEC called ALEC Exposed.

Among other things, the project apparently involved obtaining and putting online copies of ALEC’s model legislation. As the web site of ALEC Exposed states:

On July 13, 2011, the Center for Media and Democracy unveiled this trove of over 800 “model” bills and resolutions secretly voted on by corporations and politicians through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). These bills reveal the corporate collaboration reshaping our democracy, state by state…

The Center obtained copies of the bills after one of the thousands of people with access shared them, and a whistleblower provided a copy to the Center…

Please join us in helping to expose ALEC, its corporations and politicians, and how money has corrupted the democratic process.

The term “whistleblower” is kind of interesting, given that it’s usually used to describe someone who reveals illegal activity, and as yet it’s not illegal to discuss and advocate for conservative ideas, or any other political ideas for that matter. Our system of government is in fact based on the idea that we are free to communicate with our elected officials, even if we’re advocating ideas that Common Cause doesn’t much agree with.

The most recent element of the attack on ALEC seems to be a report by another member of the ‘reform’ community, the National Institute on Money in State Politics (NIMSP). One of the more obscure groups in the vast constellation of ‘reform’ groups, NIMSP compiles and makes accessible to the public campaign finance disclosure data from all 50 states. The groups essentially does at the state level what the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) does at the federal level through the OpenSecrets.org web site.

As such, NIMSP actually provides some interesting and occasionally useful data, just as CRP does at the federal level. But as a ‘reform’ group, of course, that data is often compiled and presented with the clear slant that money in politics is distorting and corrupting of honest government.

And so on Wednesday it was NIMSP’s turn to take a whack at ALEC:

Beyond Dinner and a Movie: ALEC Actively Courts State Lawmakers

The Institute examined American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) member information recently posted at ALECexposed.org by the Center for Media and Democracy. Researchers cross-checked these names against our unique state-level donor database to see how much ALEC members contributed and received in state-level campaigns. Our compelling findings are listed in the report.

Just how compelling those findings are is debatable, of course. It should probably not surprise anyone that corporations, like unions and other interest groups, and individual citizens of course, tend to contribute to politicians who share their views or support their interests. Most people call this reality, although in the ‘reform’ community it apparently is a nefarious effort to undermine democracy.

The main data contained in the report, which is extremely brief, are summed up nicely early on:

An examination of campaign donations made by ALEC corporate members dating back to the 1990 election cycle shows that they contributed $12.2 million to state-level candidates who were ALEC members, with 98.4 percent of that money going to incumbent and winning candidates, many of whom could vote on proposed legislation. Additional analysis reveals that $11.9 million of the $12.2 million went to Republicans. Click here to download the database.

Over the seven (10 for some states) election cycles covered in a donor-data analysis by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, ALEC corporate members contributed $516.2 million to state-level politics: $202.1 million to state-level candidates, $228.3 million to high-dollar ballot-measure campaigns, and $85.8 million to state political party committees.

Unlike the folks at CRP and their OpenSecrets.org web site, NIMSP rightly exclude the contributions of individuals who happen to work at corporations, focusing instead on contributions either directly from a corporation or through a PAC. This prevents the misunderstanding so often promoted by ‘reformers’ when they identify as ‘corporate contributions’ the money that is voluntarily given to candidates by individuals who happen to work at a corporation.

The data used for the analysis is incomplete, according to a conversation I had with NIMSP executive director Edwin Bender, who wrote the report. He helpfully and kindly walked me through some of the methodology, answering questions I had.

ALEC keeps their membership private, just as Progressive States Network (PSN , the liberal counterpart to ALEC) does, so Bender only had a partial list of ALEC members to work with of about 300 state legislators. As far as corporate members, I can’t say for sure but I suspect they have a largely complete list based on my own dealings with ALEC over the past 8 years – this information is pretty easy to come by.

ALEC has a current total legislative membership of about 2000, and the time period covered (ten years of full data, 20 years of data in 8 states) likely includes many more ALEC members who have left office. To the extent that Bender’s research has a point (and I don’t really think it does, as I’ll explain in a second), it means that corporate support of ALEC members is actually understated here.

But really, what does any of this mean? Not much it turns out.

As noted earlier, it should surprise nobody that business interests who want to see laws enacted that benefit them would financially support legislative candidates that tend to favor business interests, just as nobody should be surprised when labor unions support candidates that tend to favor union interests.

And looking closer at some of the ALEC members ‘exposed’ in Bender’s research actually shows just how modest, in the aggregate, support by ALEC corporate members to ALEC legislative members really is.

Consider Texas governor Rick Perry, a former ALEC member when he was a state legislator who is singled out for attention by this report:

The top recipients of donations from ALEC corporate members reads like a who’s who of state politics: ALEC “alumnus” Gov. Rick Perry of Texas received more than $2 million from 268 donations made by just 50 ALEC corporate members, far and away the most of any candidate in the decade of data analyzed.

Worth noting, of course, is that the corporate money identified here (presumably through PACs, as corporate contributions are prohibited in Texas) all came at a time when Perry was governor of Texas. During the 3 election cycles Perry was running for governor, he raised a total of just over $100 million.

So ALEC-connected contributions to Perry amounted to a grand total of two percent of all funds raised.

Doing a little more basic math, those 50 ALEC corporate members on average each gave $40,000 over 3 election cycles, or about $13,300 per cycle. Considering that Texas allows unlimited contributions, that seems pretty modest.

The numbers seem even less impressive if you consider that some major corporations that are ALEC members are based in Texas, and it’s naturally in their interest to support business-friendly candidates. For example, AT&T is based in Dallas and accounts for at least twenty percent of the Perry contributions attributed to ALEC corporations. We’re supposed to be surprised that a Texas-based corporation financially supported a Texas governor who’s ideological preferences tend to be business-friendly?

Other politicians singled out for receiving contributions from ALEC corporate members include Texas State Representative and Speaker of the House Tom Craddick (averaging a little less than $3,200 per contribution over 6 cycles), California Representative Michael Villines, who served 3 terms but is inexplicably referred to in the piece as having served for a “long time” (averaging a little under $1,400 per election cycle from ALEC members), and Illinois State Senator Kirk Dillard (averaging a bit more than $1,800 per ALEC corporate donor per election cycle). None of these are particularly large figures, particularly considering that Illinois and Texas allowed unlimited contributions during the period studied.

More importantly, there’s nothing terribly interesting about any of this. Business interests contribute to state legislative candidates that favor business interests – this is somehow supposed to be news?

Instead, it’s clear that this report is simply one more largely irrelevant but potentially sensationalistic bit of information that ‘reformers’ can run wild with. Public Citizen has already breathlessly Tweeted to their followers that “Gubernatorial candidates got $4M+ from ALEC members, incumbents got $10.8M+.”

Americans who are stunned to learn that state legislators who tend to favor limited government and conservative causes, which in turn often puts them on the same side as business interests, might actually join a group like ALEC that favors limited government and conservative causes, will find this report yet more evidence of ‘corruption’ and ‘undue influence.’

For those with a slightly more realistic understanding of politics and greater appreciation of political freedom, who aren’t surprised that state legislators meet with and work with interests that generally agree with them, it’s just one more trivial complaint by ‘reform’ ideologues incensed that our political freedoms include the freedom to disagree with them and talk to elected officials.

And of course, in directing their fire at ALEC, NIMSP and the rest of the ‘reform’ coalition continue to ignore Progressive States Network (PSN). If ‘reformers’ were truly concerned about state legislator membership groups funded by interests with an agenda, and legislators meeting with and working on model legislation with those interests, and furthermore receiving financial support from those interests, then I’d expect NIMSP would be preparing a sequel to this report but focused on ALEC’s liberal counterpart and all the union and left-leaning interest groups funding they provide to PSN’s legislator members.

Judging by the fact that the only mentions of Progressive States Network  on the NIMSP web site apparently are references to a representative from the group participating in a NIMSP event or that PSN cited NIMSP data or analysis, I think I’m likely to finally get that sequel to “The Waterboy” I’ve been waiting for before I see a NIMSP report “exposing” PSN.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.