Last month, as Democrats were struggling to craft a passable version of the Build Back Better Act, a $3.5-trillion bill that contains much of the Biden Administration’s domestic agenda, Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, told a group of reporters, “I cannot accept our economy, or, basically, our society, moving towards an entitlement mentality.” The Democrats are attempting to pass the measure through the budget-reconciliation process, an effort that will take every Democratic vote in the Senate. In return for his support, Manchin is reportedly demanding that the bill be cut by more than half, eliminating or radically scaling back key provisions such as the expansion of Medicare to cover dental, hearing, and vision; paid family and medical leave; the child tax credit; and the clean-electricity program, which would penalize gas- and coal-fired power plants in an effort to mitigate climate change.
It’s not a secret that Manchin, whose personal worth is in the millions, has deep ties to the fossil-fuel industry. Last year, he received half a million dollars in dividends from Enersystems, a coal company he started in the late eighties, which is now run by his son. He is also the U.S. senator who’s received the most money in political donations from the oil, gas, and coal industries. But an underexamined aspect of Manchin’s history is his early membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which brings together lobbyists, state legislators, and representatives of conservative think tanks to draft and disseminate model bills. Since its founding in 1973, the organization’s work has laid the foundation for thousands of laws passed by state legislatures that have weakened labor unions, redirected public-school funding to private schools, hobbled the welfare state, restricted voting rights, and blocked or reshaped environmental regulations in favor of business interests. “ALEC is unique in the sense that it puts legislators and companies together and they create policy collectively,” Scott Pruitt, a former ALEC leader and President Trump’s head of the E.P.A., explained to Governing magazine, in 2003.
Documents disclosed as part of a series of legal settlements with the tobacco industry show that Manchin, as a West Virginia state senator in the nineties, was deeply involved with ALEC. At the group’s annual conference, in 1993, which was held at a resort in Traverse City, Michigan, attendees took part in sponsored events such as R. J. Reynolds’s mixed golf tournament and skeet and trap shooting, paid for by the National Rifle Association. Manchin, then a national director for the organization, moderated a workshop devoted to health-care costs, which promised to reveal how “the true demon in America’s health care spending has become our own government programs, Medicare and Medicaid.” The panelists included a representative from the Seniors Coalition—later accused by the A.A.R.P. of being a front group for the pharmaceutical lobby—and a representative from the drugmaker Mylan. Years later, Manchin’s daughter Heather Bresch became the president and C.E.O. of Mylan. The company is currently facing an antitrust lawsuit alleging that it colluded with Pfizer to eliminate competition for its EpiPen, the price of which rose by several hundred per cent under Bresch’s leadership. (Manchin declined a request to comment for this article.)
ALEC’s next annual conference, in 1994, was in Tampa Bay. Prominent guests included Newt Gingrich, who became Speaker of the House the following year, and Grover Norquist, the anti-tax advocate. The conference opened with a speech from ALEC’s executive director, Samuel A. Brunelli. “Since D-Day, the federal government has extended its power into every sector of the economy and every sector of our lives,” Brunelli said. “And what is our reward? Well, large parts of our cities have become terrorist enclaves. Welfare is Methuselized poverty, and it replaces family with dependence on government.” To Brunelli, “the resources of the productive are plundered, while the failures of the inept are cultivated.” Manchin moderated another health-care panel with representatives from the pharmaceutical industry. Afterward, there was a lunchtime presentation of ALEC’s annual Adam Smith Free Enterprise Award, which was given to two of the organization’s funders: David and Charles Koch.
By the summer of 1995, Manchin was second vice-chairman of ALEC’s board of directors. (The group’s co-equal “Private Enterprise Board” was led by executives from Coors and Philip Morris.) In an annual report, Brunelli celebrated ALEC’s “remarkable year.” Of two hundred and sixty-eight model bills, he wrote, more than half were considered in one or more state legislatures. Nearly a thousand pieces of legislation based on ALEC model bills had been introduced, and roughly a quarter of them had been enacted. One of the most successful, the Truth in Sentencing Act, which required people convicted of a violent crime to serve at least eighty-five per cent of their sentence, became law in twenty-five states. Other widely adopted ALEC bills involved reducing benefits for welfare recipients and allowing companies to self-audit their compliance with environmental laws and then seal those records from the public. “With our success rate at more than twenty percent,” Brunelli said, “I would say that ALEC is a good investment. Nowhere else can you get a return that high.” (A representative for ALEC did not respond to a request for comment.)
Manchin was elected governor of West Virginia in 2004. By then, he had been out of ALEC for nearly a decade, but he remained a staunch defender of corporate interests. As governor, Manchin cut business taxes and sided with coal and power companies in opposing an E.P.A. effort to declare ash from coal-powered plants to be hazardous waste. (Coal ash contains contaminants, such as mercury, selenium, and lead, that can pollute groundwater and decimate fish populations.) Manchin also sued the E.P.A. and the Army Corps of Engineers over new rules that limited mountaintop-removal mining, accusing the Obama Administration of attempting “to destroy our coal industry.”
In June, an undercover reporter for Greenpeace U.K., posing as a headhunter for an unnamed oil-and-gas entity, coaxed Keith McCoy, a senior lobbyist for ExxonMobil, into a number of embarrassing revelations. “Joe Manchin—I talk to his office every week,” McCoy said. McCoy added that their conversations were aimed at ridding legislation of “negative stuff”—emissions reductions, taxes on fossil-fuel companies. “He is the kingmaker on this, because he’s a Democrat from West Virginia,” McCoy said of Manchin. “He’s not shy about sort of staking his claim early and completely changing the debate.” (Exxon has said that McCoy is no longer working for the company and denied that his comments represented the company’s position.)
ALEC still lists Manchin on its alumni page, where he’s the only Democrat among thirteen senators. Some Democratic organizations, such as the Democratic Leadership Council, have mimicked ALEC by relying on large corporations—including Koch Industries—as funders. Though the D.L.C. folded a decade ago, it drove a significant portion of the Democratic policy agenda in the nineties, enabling Republicans to realize long-cherished goals like cutting welfare benefits and passing NAFTA. But the Democrats have never had a progressive policy-making infrastructure that could match ALEC. “One of the most deleterious aspects of ALEC is how it normalizes this idea that corporations should have an equal voice and vote with state legislators on policy measures before they’re introduced in statehouses,” Lisa Graves, the executive director of True North Research, a nonpartisan corporate-watchdog group, told me. “When you looked at who had a leadership role in ALEC, it was almost entirely Republican.”
Since Biden took office, Manchin has continued to take positions that align with ALEC’s ideology. He opposed both an effort to raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour and the Senate’s For the People Act, which, among other provisions, would have eliminated partisan gerrymandering, a primary reason Republicans have an ironclad hold on many state legislatures. As the Build Back Better bill gets whittled down, Manchin has reiterated his philosophical opposition to it. “I don’t believe that we should turn our society into an entitlement society,” he said. “I think we should still be a compassionate, rewarding society.”
Last January, when Manchin opposed sending a new round of stimulus checks, he told a reporter at the Washington Post, “I don’t ever remember F.D.R. recommending sending a damn penny to a human being. He gave ’em a job.” In fact, Roosevelt created the American welfare state, including Social Security and the first national program of cash benefits for families. But Manchin’s invocation was ironic for another reason: no Democrat has ever understood better than F.D.R. the ability of corporate interests to seize political power. Just before the 1936 election, Roosevelt gave a speech outlining how these interests threatened the social and economic gains made by the New Deal. “We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering,” Roosevelt said. “They had begun to consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.”
Three days later, in what should be a lesson to Manchin and his party, Roosevelt won the largest electoral landslide in modern American history.
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