ALEC Cuts Controversial Task Force

The American Legislative Exchange Council announced it will shut down the council that fostered state "Stand Your Ground" laws. But that might be only a superficial change.

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In March, people associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement met on the steps of the Minnesota capitol building to protest the influence of ALEC [Fibonacci Blue/Flickr]

For close watchers of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the group's decision today to shut down its Public Safety and Elections Task Force is both a big deal -- and not. One the one hand, the closed task force was the part of ALEC that fostered voter requirements and gun laws (such as the "Stand Your Ground" laws now in the news, thanks to the Trayvon Martin shooting). Task forces are, critically, ALEC's organizing unit. The organization got started in 1973 but things really took root in the early 1980s with the creation of its Federalism Task Force. That worked so well that the group branched out to health care and telecommunications. By the end of the decade, there were at least a dozen of what ALEC's organizational history calls its "freestanding think tanks and model bill movers."

So ALEC's sacrificing of its branch dedicated to tackling safety and elections issues is significant. And, of course, there's the PR component of it all. An organization that owes part of its fame to the fact that it operates outside the public eye has had to respond to public pressure; the months-long online and offline campaign to peel corporate support away from ALEC we've detailed here. And for its part, ALEC seems almost willing to frame the flak it has gotten in recent months and weeks as a useful corrective. ALEC, to ALEC, has always been an organization dedicated to the Jeffersonian principles of "free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism." Conservatives back legislation, as do liberals, but if Public Safety and Elections was not quite a rogue unit, it was a distraction. Today's release from ALEC was titled "ALEC Sharpens Focus," and the theme continued in its body, which said the group was recommitting to its "efforts on the economic front, a priority that has been the hallmark of out organization for decades."

But, notwithstanding today's move, much of what critics dislike about ALEC hasn't been changed. A useful point of comparison here is the recent debate over the digital bills SOPA and PIPA. As you recall, many folks were outraged over the bills. Their champions, meanwhile, took that reaction to be a condemnation of the bills' content. MPAA chief Chris Dodd pledged to go back to the drawing board -- surely, Congress and traditional entertainment industry groups could work something out. But SOPA and PIPA's opponents rejected the former senator from Connecticut's operating premise. No more would major telecom bills be negotiated in secret by a handful of interests. The problem was process, not just the bills themselves. With ALEC, the argument is that the very organizational model is no longer acceptable, if it ever was. The vision of a "public-private partnership" that gives companies like Coca-Cola, State Farm, and AT&T equal weight as legislators is concerning in and of itself. In short, according to those who question ALEC's model, it sure seems a perversion of deliberative democracy, not to mention federalism, to have a few folks meet in a room to craft public policy that gets distributed nationwide without any meaningful transparency.

That all forms some of the context for the reactions today amongst those who have been drawing attention to ALEC for a long while now. For its part, the group ColorofChange.org, which being campaigning against ALEC's support for voter ID and other election laws since December, is implying that it doesn't believe that anything has changed when it comes to ALEC's work product. "ALEC's latest statement is nothing more than a PR stunt aimed at diverting attention from its agenda," said a statement put out by the group today, "which has done serious damage to our communities."

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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