Milbank: Shadowy group slowly losing grip on state legislators

By Dana Milbank, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoDana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Email: danamilbank@washpost.com.

It was like going into the belly of the beast.

Last week in Washington was the annual "policy summit" of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful, secretive organization funded by the Koch brothers and other corporate interests that is famous for drafting conservative legislation that Republican state legislatures adopt down to the last semicolon. And the news media were invited to attend!

I descended the escalators at the Grand Hyatt downtown, two floors below street level, excited by the possibilities listed on the ALEC agenda: The environment and energy task force, led by private-sector American Electric Power. The tax and fiscal policy task force, headed by Altria. The international relations task force, run by Philip Morris. The commerce and insurance task force, by State Farm. And the health and human services task force, by Guarantee Trust Life Insurance.

Alas, I was quickly regurgitated from the belly of the beast. Outside the meeting rooms, a D.C. police officer, stationed to keep out the riffraff, turned me away.

"What you fundamentally need to know about this organization is it's completely legislator driven," spokesman Bill Meierling said. Uh-huh. And ALEC is proving that by keeping reporters from the rooms where the legislators are or are not receiving their marching orders from corporate patrons.

This probably won't fly much longer. ALEC has been a major force behind the conservative swing in state capitals, and it claims 82 alumni in the House — including Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor — and 11 in the Senate. Its advisory council includes Exxon Mobil, Pfizer, Diageo, AT&T, Peabody Energy, Koch Companies Public Sector, and UPS. Exhibitors at its conference included the Charles Koch Institute, the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., addressed the conference.

But ALEC's fortunes began to change with the killing of Trayvon Martin and the resulting attention to the danger of "stand your ground" laws, one of many initiatives ALEC spread from sea to shining sea. Some corporate sponsors, including Amazon, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Kraft, McDonald's and Wal-Mart, quit ALEC.

On Tuesday, the Guardian newspaper published a trove of internal ALEC documents showing how grim its situation has become. It reported that the group has lost almost 400 state legislators in the past two years and more than 60 corporations. Its income fell a third short of projections in the first six months of this year.

Among the ALEC documents obtained by the Guardian: A draft loyalty oath for legislators who serve as the group's state chairs, declaring that "I will act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization first."

Group's focus changes

When I first dealt with ALEC as a state government reporter 18 years ago, it was right of center but known for thoughtful policy research. But it adopted an aggressive agenda to pass legislation expanding gun rights and voter-identification requirements, and limit the reach of public employee unions, social welfare programs, consumer and environmental protections, and Obamacare.

Emboldened by the Guardian report, liberal politicians held an anti-ALEC teleconference Wednesday afternoon. "ALEC," said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a former member of the group, "is nothing more than a corporate-funded and -dominated group that operates much like a dating service, only between legislators and special interests."

Danielle Conrad, a Nebraska state senator who quit ALEC, called it a "shadowy group" that made a "radical shift" in its agenda.

At the Grand Hyatt, Meierling, who joined ALEC from the United Way in January, told me that he's gradually introducing transparency but that ALEC "can't just kick the doors open."

Actually, it can — unless it doesn't want people to see what's behind those doors.