Conspiracies. How I hate them.
The very word encapsulates everything I’ve spent my career in public policy and public service fighting against. It summons images of secret meetings, of shadowy operatives of low moral character—people intent only on serving their own selfish goals and working against the public interest.
So I was surprised to read a new series of articles from the left-wing journal The Nation, enthusiastically endorsed by such luminaries as Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times, revealing—unbeknownst to me—that I had not only been at the center of a conspiracy, but indeed that I had been one of its prime movers.
The alleged conspiracy at issue is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group of conservative, freedom-oriented state legislators that regularly meets to share policy ideas. According to Brantley, ALEC is a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” apparently because it provided an expert to speak in favor of a bill at an Arkansas legislative committee meeting earlier this year.
But if you’re at all familiar with ALEC, you know these conspiracy accusations aren’t just wrong-headed—they’re delusional.
Behind the curtain!
According to the conspiracists at ALECexposed.com, state legislators do the bidding of ALEC because they receive luxurious paid vacations—when legislators attend ALEC conventions, they are bribed with stays at “swank hotels” and granted entrance to “cool parties.”
Now, I admit it – I’ve stayed at a swank hotel a time or two in my life (on my own dime!). But the first ALEC convention I ever attended was in Hot Springs, Ark. Hot Springs is a lovely place to visit, but it ain’t exactly Swank Hotel Central. As I write this, ALEC is holding its convention in New Orleans. If New Orleans in August has anything to do with “luxury,” I have apparently been misunderstanding the concept all these years.
At ALEC, policies are forged by what The Nation calls “secretive task forces.” A less breathless description of the “secretive task forces” is that they are meetings of scores or hundreds of people – largely state legislators and members of nonprofit public interest groups – in which all of those policies are (sometimes exhaustively) debated.
Secretive? The content of those meetings is exactly as secret as the daily content of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: if you want to know what’s in the paper, you have to buy a copy. And if you want to know what’s being discussed at ALEC, you have to pay for admission.
Sure, there are people outside Arkansas who want to influence our state’s politics, but let’s view this realistically. We regularly see efforts from out of state to get Arkansas to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment or to overrule the mechanism of the federal Constitution’s electoral college. There’s nothing especially sinister about those efforts. They rely on traditional political methods like public advocacy, working with friendly state legislators, and so forth.
But this kind of realism goes out the door when ALEC is mentioned. For some reason, when people start talking about ALEC, they end up sounding more conspiracy-minded than the late Robert Welch.
In the belly of the beast!
For several years, I was the chairman of ALEC’s legislative subcommittee on elections and ethics reform, where we produced draft bills that legislators could take back to their states. For instance, after I wrote a bill to ensure integrity in elections and block voter fraud, I brought it to ALEC and put it through the process to distribute to other legislators. The Nation writes that passage of this bill would make it harder for people to vote.
Like much of what The Nation publishes, this perspective is starkly opposed to reality. The evidence suggests that requiring voter ID at the polling place raises turnout – including turnout by Democrats and minority voters (link opens in PDF file).
Indeed, much of The Nation’s discussion of ALEC-favored policies is light on analysis, but heavy on innuendo and conspiratorial rhetoric. There is no doubt plenty of opposition to ALEC—but that is simply because there is opposition to the principles of limited government and individual freedom that it espouses.
Exposing the truth!
Take, for instance, Brantley’s accusations about Arkansas Sen. Missy Irvin’s legislative agenda. Brantley accused Irvin of sponsoring a bill ALEC wrote “to hamstring implementation of health care reform in Arkansas.” There was no such bill.
In fact, the bill Brantley alludes to, SB 709 (link opens as PDF file) went through a large number of drafts and was personally and directly written by Irvin as she consulted extensively with several health care experts and lawyers. (I was one of them; I attended a few of her drafting meetings, and I saw her mark up her bill repeatedly.)
The only thing Irvin’s bill would have done (according to a representative from the state attorney general’s office during the bill hearing) is require that the costs of Obamacare be disclosed to Arkansas taxpayers.
It certainly is true that an ALEC employee came to the state legislature to testify in favor of full disclosure of the costs of Obamacare. The only thing this demonstrates is that ALEC is a reliable source of solid, free-market, limited-government ideas and principles.
Of course, I suppose it also demonstrates that some of ALEC’s ideological opponents are aggressive advocates of secrecy in government when they fear the consequences of disclosure.