The Corporations, and Dentists, That Still Love ALEC

ALEC, the much-maligned Republican policy shop, has lost one-quarter of its funders in recent years, but new members keep signing up.

A dentist dons sterile gloves at a community health center on March 27, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado.

A dentist dons sterile gloves at a community health center on March 27, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Companies have been resigning from the Republican policy shop ALEC in droves, thanks to bad publicity about its forays into the issues of guns and voting laws. Yet the much-maligned group still proves irresistible to corporations and interest groups that want a say in state lawmaking. That's because once the American Legislative Exchange Council blesses “model policy,” drafts of new state laws can spread like wildfire across the country.

So when ALEC decided to take up the issue of dental care—it's weighing whether to urge states to allow non-dentists to do routine procedures like filling cavities—it suddenly seemed like a really good idea for the American Dental Association to pay their dues and hang out at the group's policy summit in Washington. On Thursday, an ADA guy wearing a “new member” badge was frantically cornering lawmakers after an hour-long workshop on the issue of regulating oral care. The dentists, no surprise, are decidedly against outsourcing their work to non-dentists.

When it comes to accessing these conservative policy shapers, ALEC has no equal. And since Republicans now control 31 state legislatures, the group may be more desirable than ever. ALEC doesn't disclose its private sector members, who pay dues of up to $25,000. But the group's policy summits, which are open to reporters, provide a partial answer vis-a-vis the ribbon-coded name badges that must be worn at all times. Private sector members are flagged with a blue ribbon, and many of them also wear a yellow one stamped “sponsor.”

Executives from Pfizer, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Takeda Pharmaceuticals and Purdue Pharma flitted into conference rooms at the Hyatt Regency near Capitol Hill on Wednesday and Thursday, taking seats alongside some of the 500 state lawmakers in attendance. Peabody Energy, a coal company, sent at least two representatives, including its Arizona lobbyist Tom Dorn, to roam the hallways. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (a pro-coal lobby group) had someone on hand to attend ALEC's private energy committee meeting Thursday. And holding court over a clique of Kansas lawmakers at the bar Wednesday night was Mike Morgan, a top government affairs consultant for Wichita, Kansas-based Koch Industries sporting a brown ribbon signifying his elevated status as a “Jeffersonian” member.

Other notable name tags: State Farm insurance; Anheuser-Busch; Reynolds, the parent of the tobacco company; and Novolex, a paper and plastic bag maker. Plenty of free-market-friendly research groups and business associations—the National Federation of Independent Business, Heartland, Manhattan, Reason—were also around. The private sector members weren't interested in talking to a reporter on the record, but several snickered at the notion that ALEC would be driven out of existence by the campaign against the group. “They'll be back,” one longtime member predicted.  

ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling said there are 30 new private sector members this year. He's countering the narrative that companies are fleeing, but acknowledges the group has lost about one-quarter of its private-sector members—which can include corporations, think-tanks and other advocacy groups—in recent years. Now there are about 300 private sector members and 2,000 lawmaker members. The much-publicized departures began in 2011, after a Washington good-government group funded by Democrats circulated internal ALEC documents that outed some companies as members. Bad PR continued in 2012, when the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin put a spotlight on a stand-your-ground gun law proposal that ALEC promoted as “model legislation” for other states. This year, ALEC's stance on rolling back anti-pollution regulations prompted some big-name tech companies to quit.

An ALEC session on Wednesday was rather more conspiratorial about why some businesses are no longer members. The title: “Playing the Shame Game: A Campaign That Threatens Corporate Free Speech.” Three panelists told a rapt audience that union activists are out to get ALEC—that they're following Saul Alinsky's playbook on browbeating corporations into submission. Unions are often shareholders in public companies thanks to pension fund investments. That means they get to offer proposals, such as “resign from ALEC,” in annual shareholder meetings.

“The real objective here is to silence dissenting speech,” said panelist Paul Atkins, a former Securities and Exchange commissioner under President George W. Bush. “They want to paint a picture of evil big corporations. They know that disclosure has a way of scaring people away. There's a huge chilling effect.”

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