With the political media’s attention firmly fixed on Rep. Matt Gaetz’s (R-FL) dethroning of Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, a secretive corporate pay-to-play group that quietly shapes state laws across the country is holding its 50th anniversary gala this week at the National Portrait Gallery, just a mile away.
Over the past five decades, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has brought corporate lobbyists and conservative state legislators together behind closed doors to draft and promote hundreds of model bills affecting the pocketbooks and rights of millions of Americans. ALEC’s agenda extends to almost every area of public policy, as lawmakers take these model bills written by powerful special-interest and far-right groups—including the tobacco, gun, oil, pharmaceutical, and telecom industries—back to their statehouses and introduce them as their own. From lower wages to increased mass shootings, more pollution, fewer consumer protections, and less bodily autonomy, the negative impacts on everyone living in the U.S. have been profound.
And since ALEC masquerades as a tax-exempt charity, your tax dollars subsidize it all.
From Evangelism to Corporatism
Inspired by then Gov. Ronald Reagan and the Powell Memorandum, three right-wing legislators in Chicago originally founded ALEC in 1973 as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators. By 1975, the group designed to promote a socially conservative and pro-corporate agenda at the state level was renamed the American Legislative Exchange Council and moved to Washington, D.C., under the leadership of Paul Weyrich, a Christian right activist who also helped found the Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority.
Weyrich was appalled at the direction the country was heading and argued that groups like ALEC and Heritage, which he ran out of the same Capitol Hill townhouse, were needed to “overturn the present power structure of this country.” Consequently, in the 1970s, ALEC’s agenda focused heavily on the culture wars of the day through its opposition to abortion, racial integration of private schools, and the Equal Rights Amendment.
However, by the 1980s, ALEC had struck up strategic alliances with the tobacco industry and other increasingly politicized corporations that recognized the potential for the organization to advance their interests. ALEC offered a seemingly neutral front and a large network of legislators who could move hundreds of pro-business bills on everything from fighting tort reform to opposing environmental regulations—all without leaving any industry fingerprints.
ALEC’s 1996 business plan cemented its current pay-to-play structure for moving pro-corporate and right-wing legislation. “ALEC must begin to function more like a business, and recognize that it has a product that it provides to a defined customer base for a ‘profit,’” the plan stated. “ALEC’s product is policy, and its customers are state legislators and private sector supporters.”
ALEC’s corporate members pay thousands of dollars each year in order to buy both access to ALEC-affiliated legislators and a seat on the group’s policy task forces or Private Enterprise Advisory Council. They pay thousands more for sponsorships at ALEC events and to drive the agenda with policy sessions of their choice. Dues from legislators, on the other hand, are just $200 per year and account for less than 1 percent of ALEC’s annual revenues.
Manufacturing Public Policy
True to its business plan—which claims “ALEC is the most effective delivery mechanism for conservative policy alternatives at the state level”—ALEC has helped hundreds of corporations, trade associations, and right-wing groups quietly move their agendas in the states in exchange for their funding.
Since ALEC attempts to hide its activities, no public-interest groups have yet been able to compile a complete count of ALEC bills. But in corporate recruitment documents obtained by Common Cause and the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) from the 1990s, the group claimed that its legislative members introduce more than 1,000 ALEC bills every legislative cycle. A 2019 investigation by USA Today and The Arizona Republic found that “bills based on ALEC models were introduced nearly 2,900 times, in all 50 states and the U.S. Congress, from 2010 through 2018, with more than 600 becoming law.”
“With a success rate at more than 20 percent, I would say that ALEC is a good investment,” ALEC’s then-Executive Director Samuel Brunelli boasted to members in 1995. “Nowhere else can you get a return that high.”
The journey to passage of an ALEC model bill typically begins at a luxury resort hotel during one of ALEC’s summer annual meetings or late-fall policy summits. Once there, corporate leaders and ALEC legislators—many of whom receive “scholarships” for their travel and lodging paid for by corporate lobbyists in their home states—meet in one of ALEC’s ten policy task force meetings to consider legislative proposals typically drafted by corporations, trade associations, or right-wing think tanks.
Task force meetings are closed to nonmembers, with state lawmakers limited to joining two. Over the course of three hours, members hear presentations from corporate representatives, trade associations, and right-wing groups, and then vote on the proposals as equals. The model bills then move on to ALEC’s board for final approval.
Meanwhile, a host of Republican politicians and right-wing speakers make presentations to legislators over meals and in workshops that align with donor priorities such as supporting the fossil fuel industry (“Stopping ESG”) and promoting universal school voucher programs (“Building on the Momentum for Education Freedom”).
And then there are the perks. Although things may have evolved a bit since ALEC’s first convention when legislators were entertained by scantily clad “Gaslight Girls” at Chicago’s Gaslight Club, over the years ALEC has treated legislators to golf tournaments sponsored by R.J. Reynolds, cigar parties, and skeet shooting courtesy of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
“ALEC is a corporate dating service for lonely legislators,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) testified in 2012. ALEC conventions were “where you watched the interaction of a room full of lobbyists,” he told Bill Moyers in “United States of ALEC.” “You know, free drinks. Free cigars. Wining. Dining. Many people just came from a dinner that was sponsored by a special interest, coming to a party that’s sponsored by a special interest, so they could continue to talk about special interests.”
The group has had a major effect on policy in many states and the nation as a whole over the past 50 years. (CMD compiles ALEC’s model legislation and known corporate and legislative members as part of its ALEC Exposed project.)
ALEC and Tobacco
Working hand in hand with big tobacco companies, ALEC fed lawmakers industry propaganda about secondhand smoke and the economic benefits of the industry, and opposed state and federal regulation of tobacco sales and smoking in public places. No wonder, then, that R.J. Reynolds’s strategic plan in the late 1980s named ALEC as an ally that could help “create an atmosphere of tolerance and fairness in the public’s attitude toward smoking and smokers.”
It’s still at it to this day. At this summer’s annual meeting, ALEC sold tobacco giant Altria access to lawmakers in task force meetings—at least half a dozen of whom sit on health policy committees in their home states—so its lobbyists could make their arguments for deregulating flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes.
ALEC and Guns
In 1973, ALEC struck up a similar relationship with the NRA right out of the gate, and it has played a major role since then in making America the number one rich country in the world for mass shootings and gun deaths outside of actual war zones. ALEC also partnered with a group even further to the right called Gun Owners of America, led by white supremacist Larry Pratt, who served as ALEC’s treasurer in the 1980s.
Over the years, ALEC has opposed assault weapon bans in Congress and at the local level, promoted legislation to allow concealed handguns on college campuses, opposed restrictions on armor-piercing bullets, helped prevent cities from suing gun manufacturers, and pushed the NRA’s “CrimeStrike” campaign to shift the focus of the epidemic of gun violence to the people using them instead of guns themselves. And the list goes on.
ALEC’s most infamous partnership with the NRA took the form of the “Stand Your Ground” bill, which empowers people to use deadly force legally when they feel threatened in a public place. After the first Stand Your Ground bill was passed in Florida in 2005, the NRA took it to an ALEC task force meeting (co-chaired by leading gun seller Walmart), and got it approved as an ALEC model bill under the totally misleading title of the Castle Doctrine Act.
Since then, 26 more states including more than half the American population have passed Stand Your Ground bills, leading to “a dangerous ‘shoot first’ culture of violence and vigilantism,” according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. Several studies have tied ALEC’s Stand Your Ground laws to increased homicide rates, and they have been invoked as a defense in numerous high-profile shootings, including the 2012 shooting of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin as he was on his way home from buying a pack of Skittles at the local 7-Eleven.
ALEC and Big Oil
Perhaps the biggest impact of ALEC’s service to industry lies with its longtime role as a front group for the fossil fuel industry’s campaign to deny climate science and block environmental protections on everything from fracking to the Keystone Pipeline.
In 2016, CMD teamed up with Common Cause to file a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) charging that ALEC had taken more than $1.7 million from ExxonMobil to run an illegal scheme to promote the company’s legislative goals. A key part of that scheme was for ALEC to act as a “fund allocator” for the American Petroleum Institute’s disinformation campaign on climate change, dubbed the “Global Science Communications Action Plan.”
Exxon was ideally positioned to use ALEC for that purpose, as it had long held a seat on the group’s corporate board and its energy task force, along with Koch Industries and other oil and gas companies. With their backing, ALEC has introduced scores of energy and environmental bills across the country, including the Environmental Literacy Improvement Act, which seeks to undermine the factual teaching of the ongoing climate crisis in schools, multiple measures designed to block the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a bill to let gas companies keep secret the list of chemicals they use in fracking, and legislation to discourage rooftop solar.
When the fossil fuel industry faced increasing protests from water and land protectors exhausted with inaction from policymakers, ALEC adopted the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, which criminalizes such protests through a drastic increase in penalties for those who trespass on facilities run by fossil fuel or utility companies. That bill has now become law in 17 states.
Most recently, ALEC has attacked environmentally sustainable investment strategies in order to slow the transition to renewable energy, placing itself at the center of the manufactured crisis around ESG (the consideration of environmental, social, and governance factors in business practices) and so-called “woke capitalism.” Dominated by fossil fuel interests, ALEC’s energy task force has approved model bills over the past two years that would allow states to blacklist companies that divest from fossil fuels and prohibit public pension funds from taking into account the climate crisis when making investment decisions.
ALEC’s top sponsor at this summer’s annual meeting was Consumers’ Research, a Leonard Leo–funded group leading the anti-woke crusade, and featured a workshop on “Stopping ESG.” In a similar panel at last December’s policy summit, Andy Puzder—who helped draft ALEC’s recent anti-woke bills—called ESG investing “socialism in sheep’s clothing,” and compared the current opposition to ESG to the fight against Nazis during World War II.
ALEC and Unions
While ALEC’s secret work for the tobacco, gun, and oil lobbies may be more controversial, it has also moved thousands of other bills designed to preserve the bottom line of corporate America—from flat taxes that benefit corporations and the rich, to protecting drug companies against lawsuits, deregulating the telecom industry, and privatizing schools along with just about everything else.
Crushing unions and suppressing wages top this corporate wish list.
In 2020, CMD exposed ALEC’s Labor Reform Policy book compiling its anti-union agenda in all 50 states. Many of ALEC’s labor “solutions” focus on crippling public-employee and teachers unions under the guise of worker “freedom.” They reflect the strategy laid out by ALEC’s sister group, the State Policy Network, in 2017 to “defund and defang” unions in order to deprive the left of cash and win more elections.
But ALEC’s animus to unions runs deeper than that. No ALEC model legislation has moved the dial back on worker rights more than its so-called Right to Work Act, adopted in 1995. This law prohibits unions from negotiating closed-shop contracts, which require all workers to join the union as a condition of employment. Infringing on freedom of contract in this way weakens unions by enabling shirkers who can enjoy union benefits without contributing to union expenses. Most of these laws were adopted in the 1940s and ’50s, but with ALEC’s backing six more states have passed them since 1995. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the free-rider problem created by those laws has resulted in a significant drop in unionization rates and wages.
ALEC fights to keep wages low whether a worker is in a union or not. It has adopted model bills to repeal minimum-wage and living-wage laws—and preempt localities from setting them—and repeal prevailing wage standards. Thanks to ALEC, 22 states have passed laws preempting local action on setting the minimum wage, 16 of which still adhere to the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.
The cost to low-wage workers is staggering. In St. Louis, for example, the city passed a higher minimum-wage ordinance in 2015, only to have it nullified by state law two years later. As a result, minimum-wage workers were robbed of $71.1 million in raises in a single year, according to figures compiled by the Economic Policy Institute.
ALEC moved thousands of these and similar special-interest bills while flying under the radar until the CMD outed its pay-to-play operations in 2011—after analyzing and publishing more than 800 model bills received from a whistleblower.
Soon, media outlets started paying attention, and ALEC’s role in pushing controversial Voter ID and Stand Your Ground bills sparked a public backlash, especially after the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Groups like Common Cause, People for the American Way, and ProgressNow joined CMD in digging into ALEC’s activities, and Color of Change led a campaign to pressure corporations to sever their ties with ALEC due to the racist impact of its legislation.
Within a year, dozens of major companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi had bailed on ALEC, and its “I Stand With ALEC” campaign had fizzled. In the spring of 2012, ALEC announced that it was disbanding its Public Safety and Elections Task Force, which had approved both bills.
In April 2012, Common Cause filed a whistleblower complaint against ALEC with the IRS based on hundreds of pages of internal ALEC documents, accusing the group of violating its tax-exempt status and acting as “a vehicle for its corporate members to lobby state legislators” while illegally deducting the cost as charitable contributions. Since then, Common Cause and CMD have submitted three supplemental filings extensively detailing ALEC’s lobbying activity, its corporate-funded “scholarship” scheme for legislator travel, and its illegal lobbying for Exxon.
Environmental, pro-democracy, and progressive groups continued their pressure on ALEC-affiliated corporations in the ensuing years due to the group’s climate denial activities, ultimately leading more than 100 companies to break with ALEC. Three major telecom companies, Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast, dropped their memberships after far-right leader David Horowitz gave a controversial speech at ALEC’s 2018 annual meeting.
Who Bankrolls ALEC?
ALEC’s dues from legislative members plunged by 48 percent between when the ALEC Exposed project launched in 2011 and 2020, suggesting that the group has less than half of the 2,000 members it still claims. Yet its annual revenues have increased more than 40 percent since 2011—to a total of $10.1 million in 2022.
So who bankrolls the organization?
A recent CMD analysis of ALEC’s funding uncovered 39 percent—or $16.4 million—of the $41.7 million ALEC received in contributions between 2017 and 2021. Nonprofits are not required to disclose their funders, so CMD scours hundreds of tax filings every year to figure out the source of these contributions.
The Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation was the top identifiable contributor to ALEC between 2017 and 2021, giving $3.4 million. Run by political operatives intent on building a national right-wing infrastructure, Bradley bankrolls ALEC CARE, the group’s controversial voter management campaign software, and since 2018 has sponsored “forums” at ALEC meetings that feature other Bradley grant recipients.
The second-largest known donor to ALEC is Charles Koch, whose foundations gave the organization just over $2 million between 2017 and 2021. DonorsTrust, the preferred donor conduit of the Koch political network, kicked in another $2.2 million during the same period. The amount of money Koch Industries pays ALEC is unknown, but the oil and chemical giant—the second-largest privately held company in the U.S.—has held a seat on ALEC’s corporate board since 1996 and is an active member of ALEC’s energy task force.
Searle Freedom Trust, the third-largest known contributor, gave $1.7 million between 2017 and 2021. The trust’s wealth stems from the G.D. Searle pharmaceutical company, known for producing the artificial sweetener aspartame, more commonly marketed as NutraSweet.
Most of the remaining funds CMD could not identify likely come from what corporations pay to give their representatives a seat beside legislators in ALEC’s issue task forces and in other event sponsorships. Though most companies do not report what they pay ALEC, there are still instructive examples: The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the drug industry’s primary trade association, paid ALEC $504,000 during those five years, and Pinnacle West Capital Corp. paid $91,054.
Voter Suppression, the Big Lie, and the January 6th Insurrection
After 2011, ALEC seemed chastened by the backlash against its voter suppression and pro-gun work, and strove to frame itself as an organization focused on promoting “free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty.” In addition to disbanding the task force that generated many of the controversial bills, ALEC’s CEO Lisa Nelson acknowledged that the group’s involvement with those issues “hasn’t ended well for ALEC,” and claimed that “ALEC doesn’t work on voting issues” anymore.
But that is a lie.
As early as 2019, ALEC had reconvened a secret Political Process Working Group focused on voter suppression and redistricting. ALEC outsourced model bills on voting restrictions to the Honest Elections Project and sold the group access to its legislators for at least three “invitation-only” academies that promoted unfounded and dangerous claims about voter fraud.
Indeed, ALEC is closely tied to the January 6th Capitol insurrection and post-election efforts to undermine public confidence in elections.
ALEC has been a big fan of former President Trump from the outset. Not long after he took office, Nelson told ALEC members and funders that the Trump administration had “the potential to be an ALEC administration.” She wrote, “It is full of the people and ideas we’ve advanced since 1973. Now is our time. And ALEC is ready.”
So perhaps there was little surprise when Nelson told donors and activists at a February 2020 meeting of the secretive Council for National Policy (CNP) that ALEC was working with GOP attorneys (including the chair of ALEC’s secret election working group Cleta Mitchell) on “action items that legislators can take to question the validity of an election”—nine months before the presidential election.
“Obviously we all want President Trump to win and win the national vote,” ALEC’s ostensibly nonpartisan CEO said, “but it’s very clear … that really what it comes down to is the states and state legislators.” After the election, ALEC leaders acted on Nelson’s plan. ALEC’s treasurer, Arizona Senate President Karen Fann (R), called on Arizona’s secretary of state to investigate whether the “election was conducted unfairly, if not fraudulently.” ALEC’s board member Rep. Seth Grove (R-PA) and his Pennsylvania state co-chairs organized a letter to the state’s congressional delegation calling on them to object to certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. ALEC board member and state chair Rep. Gary Smith (R-SC) wrote an op-ed casting doubt on the legitimacy of Pennsylvania’s and Nevada’s mail-in ballots. And ALEC state chair Rep. Justin Hill (R-MO) missed his own inauguration so that he could attend the January 6th events in D.C.
ALEC’s rank and file were close behind. On January 5, 2021, 30 ALEC legislators signed a letter to Vice President Mike Pence calling on him not to certify the election results, alleging election violations in five swing states. ALEC member Rep. Mark Finchem (R-AZ) was listed as a speaker for the January 6th #StopTheSteal rally. And hours after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to prevent certification of the election results, 41 ALEC alumni in Congress voted against certifying President Biden’s victory.
After the attempted putsch failed, ALEC has doubled down. Since the insurrection, more than 100 ALEC legislators in six battleground states have sponsored bills to make voting more difficult based on the Big Lie of widespread voter fraud in 2020. And in July 2022, the group held a special members-only reception to honor its national chair, Sen. Fann—only a month after she was subpoenaed by the Department of Justice as part of its January 6th criminal investigation, and despite her role as ringleader of a bogus, partisan audit of Arizona’s election results by the MAGA-funded company Cyber Ninjas.
White Nationalists and Christian Right Extremists
In many ways, ALEC has circled back to its far-right roots. While the exodus of brand-sensitive companies might have prompted most organizations to stay away from extremism on social issues, it hasn’t shied away from embracing white nationalists or Christian right fanatics.
ALEC’s Washington state chair, Rep. Matt Shea (R), was referred to the FBI in October 2018 for circulating a manifesto calling for a Christian holy war to stop abortion, end same-sex marriage, and replace America’s justice system with biblical law. And if citizens refuse to comply? “Kill all the males,” Shea’s manual suggested.
In December 2019, an independent investigation by the Washington House of Representatives concluded that “Shea planned, engaged in, and promoted a total of three armed conflicts of political violence” against the U.S. government between 2014 and 2016.
For nearly a year, ALEC ignored calls to remove Shea as its state chair, even after his colleagues in the Washington House voted to rescind his chairmanship of the Republican Caucus. Once he was dismissed from the Republican Caucus altogether, ALEC quietly dropped him from its state chair list, but never denounced his extremist and violent views.
In recent years, ALEC has increasingly worked with extremist groups and funders, often hiding behind other front groups that it helps to promote or selling them access to its legislators.
A 2021 investigation by CMD and the Southern Poverty Law Center found that ALEC was working with two designated anti-LGBTQ hate groups, Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, in a “Back to Neutral” coalition “urging American corporations to cease their radical political activism and return to their core missions.” The “radical political activism” in question refers to corporate attempts to address racial and gender equality through diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, or the climate crisis through ESG investment.
“It’s not our day job to fight that issue,” ALEC CEO Nelson said at a meeting of the CNP, the hyper-secret network of Christian right leaders and billionaires in which she participates. But the coalition is “really, really active … [and] we are certainly part of that,” she added.
ALEC’s recent ties to Christian right groups go even deeper. In 2019, it hosted an “Inaugural Free Speech Dinner” with Alliance Defending Freedom at its annual policy summit, where the group’s president delivered a “special message” to ALEC legislators. And in August of that year, ALEC provided a venue at its annual meeting for the newly formed National Association of Christian Lawmakers (NACL) to successfully solicit nine state chairs and many members. The NACL, which its founder describes as “ALEC from a biblical worldview,” went on to lead passage of Texas’s controversial abortion bounty-hunter bill, SB 8, and introduce similar bills in a dozen other states.
This year, ALEC also named Craig DeRoche of the Christian right Family Policy Alliance as private chair of its Criminal Justice Task Force, an unusual move for a position typically reserved for corporate or industry lobbyists over the years.
Back to Banning Abortion
ALEC’s most recent significant partnership with the religious right focuses on banning abortion, one of its original positions 50 years ago. Last year, ALEC celebrated the Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade—decided the same year ALEC was formed—and eliminate the constitutional right to access abortion.
“The Court has properly empowered the duly elected members of each state’s legislature with the authority to decide what is best for the citizens of their state,” Nelson announced in a press release and tweet on the day of the ruling.
Prior to the ruling, ALEC had teamed up with Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America (SBA), an extremist group that advocates for a nationwide ban on abortion, to train ALEC legislators about how to talk about the abortion issue during elections, complete with a messaging guide and a mock interview video. ALEC has partnered with SBA for years, but before Roe was overturned its events at ALEC conventions had been left off the public agenda.
ALEC allowed the Family Research Council to tack on a Pro-Life Legislative Summit at the end of its December 2022 policy summit that featured Jonathan Mitchell, “the author of the groundbreaking Texas Heartbeat Act,” speaking on “how states can respond to one of the most eagerly awaited Supreme Court cases—Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—and see successful legislation like the Texas Heartbeat Act passed in your state.”
And this summer, ALEC kicked off its annual meeting with a reception for its legislators and SBA to discuss the “post-Dobbs policy environment and state jurisdiction to protect the right to life.” Attendees at that meeting were fed a constant diet of anti-abortion arguments and misinformation from SBA, the National Right to Life Committee, and Support After Abortion.
In a sense, that was all beside the point: Nearly 700 ALEC legislators in 22 states have already voted to ban abortion.
ALEC’s open embrace of the far right’s culture wars and anti-abortion groups creates a dilemma for its corporate sponsors, many of which hold public positions at odds with ALEC’s extreme agenda. Rallying around the hashtag #50YearsofHarm, a broad coalition of progressive groups are holding a protest outside of ALEC’s gala on October 4, where they will launch a new petition drive calling on corporations to disassociate with ALEC.
“Whether it’s pushing legislation for the tobacco industry and gun manufacturers, promoting the American Petroleum Institute’s climate denial plan, demonizing sustainable and inclusive business practices, supporting voter suppression, or gutting access to reproductive healthcare, we believe ALEC’s positions are out of line with the values your corporation claims to embrace,” the petition reads. “We the undersigned consumers and voters call on your company to practice what you preach and end your financial support for and participation in ALEC.”
“The most effective way to counter ALEC is to shine a bright light on its pay-to-play influence operation,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of True North Research and the founder of ALEC Exposed. “The majority of Americans oppose the special-interest influence and regressive policies ALEC represents.”
Juliana Broad contributed to this article.