Exposing The Machinery Of The Corporate Right

Up in Wyoming, the local Casper Star-Tribune decided to take a look at the machinery that pushes conservative laws in the state's legislature. Many here at MyDD may be well aware of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate-funded rightist law-writing factory that works behind the scenes to cram their agenda on the states. But I have a feeling it's a group that isn't discussed very often among readers of the Star-Tribune (or, for that matter, any local paper outside of Washington, DC). That's why their coverage of ALEC is so important.

ALEC is one of several national organizations of state legislators. But it's not a typical good-government association. Rather, it's a conduit for corporate interests to influence legislators.

ALEC has an unabashed conservative leaning, and liberal organizations indignantly denounce it as the Great Satan of American politics. Even though most Wyoming voters would cheerfully approve of their legislators' involvement in a conservative group, some aspects of ALEC are troubling.    

When you watch government officials, it's a good idea to follow the money. In ALEC's case, the trail is pretty clear. A state legislator pays only $50 a year to join. Corporate sponsors put up $5,000 to $50,000 -- for which they are privileged to write "model" laws that ALEC distributes to legislators nationwide. Legislators attend ALEC's conventions in touristy locales, where they rub elbows with the corporate benefactors who subsidize the whole shebang. (This year's gathering is in San Francisco.)

Secrecy is another red flag. [State Rep. Pete] Illoway, a Cheyenne Republican, refused a Star-Tribune request for a list of Wyoming legislators who are ALEC members. The next question is obvious: What do those legislators have to hide?

As Matt Singer points out at the PLAN blog, "ALEC's real focus is on corporate profit and hurting liberals for purely political gain." Corporations funnel unknown amounts of money into the organization, which then writes pro-corporate legislation that gets passed to members in state legislators who, as the Star-Tribune points out, don't have to disclose their membership.

If you ever find yourself frustrated that the Republicans seem to be better tacticians than Democrats, you should know that ALEC is one of the reasons why. By pushing canned legislation at the state level, ALEC helps Republicans build the groundwork for future gains, as these rightist laws then filter up the legislative food chain, eventually finding a foothold in Washington. Just take a look at some of their wish list: fighting auto emissions standards, fighting against lowering class sizes in schools, fighting living wage laws, fighting against progressive taxation, etc.

The emergence of PLAN as a counterbalance to ALEC is an important step in ending the corporate right's onslaught on our state governments. But perhaps more important is the fact that people all across the country learn what ALEC is about and who is behind it. As the Star-Tribune points out, living in our communities, state legislators are far more easily influenced than members of the US Congress. Local campaigns to let them know that their constituents know all about ALEC -- what they do, where their money comes from -- is not unlikely to shake them out of some of that laziness.

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Holding State Legislators Accountable

In New York, the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy has undertaken an incredibly impressive mission. Today, DMI issued a comprehensive scorecard grading the state legislature on issues impacting the state's middle class. It's not your standard scorecard, which is typically focused on an individual issue like the environment, labor, or gun control. Rather, it's a much more comprehensive look at the issues impacting New York's middle class and how legislators are responding to them.

Votes examined for the scorecard include everything from card-check recognition of unions and an estate tax exemption to predatory mortgage lending and subsidized daycare. Each legislator's votes are compared to the middle class position and a percentage score is tabulated which is then translated into an easily understood letter grade. For each bill, an overview is also given, describing the legislation, giving key facts and figures about it, and grading each legislative body as well as both political parties.

Take, for example, a Senate bill proposing an expansion of daycare subsidies for working families. Overall, the state Senate failed, with only 39% support. Senate Democrats overwhelmingly supported the bill, earning a 91%/A- grade. Senate Republicans were given an F, with 0% support.  DMI coded the middle class position as a yes vote, citing the fact that families who already qualify often do not receive any assistance because the program is not adequately funded. In explaining the topic, they offer quotes from experts from the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the Greater Upstate Law Project discussing the issue. They also post statistics like the number of children who would benefit from the bill and the number of families who qualify, but don't receive funding, as well as costs associated with daycare.

Beyond the fact that this is an incredibly valuable resource, DMI is using an interesting tactic to promote it. Rather than simply telling you about it, it's worth seeing it in action. The Speaker of the state Assembly is Sheldon Silver, a Democrat from the 64th district. Google him. If you look at the 'Sponsored Links' to the right side of the search results, you should notice that he's earned an A- according to the Drum Major Institute's scorecard. Try it with any other member of the state's Assembly or Senate -- they're all there. (Or just take my word for it, as we don't want to run up massive charges on DMI's account.)

To me, this is brilliant. What better way to get relevant information to people looking up their state representatives than a Google AdWords campaign? Unfortunately, they're only running the ad campaign for 30 days, which I'd assume is a budgetary matter. I really hope this is something they revisit, perhaps for a few weeks leading up to primary or general elections. After all, that tends to be the time when most people are interested in what their representatives have been up to.

I've made no secret of the fact that I think the states actually hold the key to future progressive innovation and power. But within the states, more tools are needed to help politicians move a progressive agenda forward. This is why a group like PLAN are so important. But equally important, especially in states that are already ostensibly blue, is a mechanism to make sure legislators know their voting records are being scrutinized. At least in New York, DMI's outstanding legislative scorecard fills that role and provides a solid model I hope will be emulated elsewhere.

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Romney Misses The Point On Adoption

Up in Massachusetts, there's an interesting debate going on about adoption and discrimination. At issue is whether or not religious groups involved in adoption services should be allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples who want to adopt. Catholic Charities of Boston has announced they will no longer provide adoption services rather than comply with state anti-discrimination laws that prohibit them from rejecting gay and lesbian couples interested in adopting. In response, Governor Mitt Romney, a 2008 contender, wants to exempt religious organizations from such laws. He's tried to play both sides of the issue, saying that even though he believes there is a "legitimate interest" on the part of gay couples in adoption, subjecting Catholic Charities to the law represents a "threat to religious freedom."

I take serious, serious issue with Romney's characterization of adoption. He views it not as a service of necessity to children who need solid families, but as a service of convenience to would-be parents. While he acknowledges that same-sex couples are likely to view his position as discriminatory, he points out that there are non-religious "agencies that can meet the needs of those gay couples." In this case, I understand what Romney's trying to say, but he clearly just does not get the issue. Sure, there are other adoption agencies besides Catholic Charities that gay couples can turn to.

The problem, however, is that this move threatens to shrink the pool of good parents available to children who desperately need them. Oddly enough, it seems the forty two members of the board of Catholic Charities agree with my assessment, voting unanimously in December to continue placing children with same-sex couples for adoption. When it was announced a few weeks ago that the organization was going to halt the practice anyway, seven prominent board members quit.

In covering the story of the board member resignations, The Boston Globe examined the thirteen cases of adoption by gay couples handled by Catholic Charities of Boston over a two-decade period. All of the children "were considered hard to place, either because they were older or because they had special needs." And that is the point here. In 2003, there were roughly 120,000 children in public foster care waiting to be adopted in the United States. Romney apparently doesn't get that this isn't about meeting the desires of couples, gay or straight. It's about meeting the needs of children who need strong families, gay or straight.

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State Law After Roe

Following up on last night's post about the South Dakota and Mississippi abortion bans, Josh Goodman of Governing magazine's '13th Floor' blog sent me a link to his analysis of state abortion law in a post-Roe America. Relying heavily on data from NARAL, Goodman concludes that "23 states would be likely to ban most abortions, 20 states would keep abortion legal... and 7 states would be battlegrounds...."

While it's a pretty solid piece of research, I'm surprised at some of the conclusions he reaches. For example, I have trouble accepting that Rhode Island would be likely to ban abortion, while Kansas would not. Since he uses Kansas as an example, I'll let him speak for himself on his methodology.

I took into account natural legislative inertia -- it's much easier to maintain the legal status quo than it is to change it. Look at Kansas, where there is currently no abortion ban on the books. NARAL lists the Kansas House as anti-choice, the Senate as mixed-choice and Governor Kathleen Sebelius as pro-choice. It would be difficult to pass an abortion ban in Kansas because Sebelius and the Senate could block it.

I would suggest that he's overlooking the social impact of an upending of Roe v. Wade. It's not as if such an event would occur in a vacuum where the "natural legislative inertia" would remain intact. Quite to the contrary, the end of Roe would likely bring a blizzard of activism on both sides of the issue. And in Kansas, even though I understand Goodman's take, I think the ensuing anti-choice uproar would push the state to join the ranks of abortion outlawing states.

Ultimately, with few exceptions, like swapping Kansas and Tennessee into the ban category, I'd say that Goodman's analysis sounds about right, at least numbers-wise (23 ban, 20 don't ban, and 7 on the fence). That means that if Roe is overturned (something that won't happen over night), the nation will be split about 50/50 when it comes to outlawing choice, with a number of states imposing varying levels of restriction. Like I said earlier, this is no longer an issue that exists merely in the abstract.

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Outlawing Choice No Longer Exists In The Abstract

As you've undoubtedly already heard, Governor Mike Rounds has signed into law a bill banning abortion in the state of South Dakota. While there is an exception in the bill if the life of the mother is at risk, there are no exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or situations where the health of the mother is compromised. The South Dakota ban is likely to be followed shortly by a similar ban in Mississippi, which does allow exceptions for cases of rape and incest. Right now, each state only has one abortion clinic.

Now, neither of these bills is really going to outlaw abortion in either state. Yet. Rounds openly admits that the South Dakota ban will be bogged down in the courts for years to come. Both (again, as you've undoubtedly already heard) are designed to challenge the precedent of Roe v Wade in the Supreme Court, where their backers expect to find a receptive audience with John Roberts and Samuel Alito. This is the moment that every pro-choice voter who has ever voted for a Republican never thought would come. They voted for Republican tax cuts, confident that the social agenda was just some sort of ruse to win over the Falwell crowd. For example, in September of 2004, polling indicated that in the crucial state of Ohio, support for Bush among self-identified pro-choice voters was much higher than support for Kerry among self-identified pro-life voters. This is a critical point. Throughout the pro-choice electorate, there has long been this assumption that the woman's right to choose is not seriously threatened. It has always been an incredibly stupid and undisciplined thing to assume. Elected Republicans haven't been pandering to the Falwell crowd. They are the Falwell crowd.

And this fight isn't over. It doesn't end with Bush naming Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court. If not Bush, the next President will name a replacement to John Paul Stevens, whose death Republicans are gleefully hoping for because it will likely push the court decisively one way or the other (or at least more than it has already been pushed). A quick review of Republicans likely to run for their party's nomination in 2008 shows that ignoring choice at the ballot box is no longer an option. John McCain, George Allen, and Mitt Romney have all promised that, like Rounds, they would sign the South Dakota ban, as has darkhorse candidate Mike Huckabee.

Advocates for choice have been warning voters about this for years. Obviously, after a while, those warnings sounded alarmist and unrealistic to some. Unfortunately, they were neither. So here we are. This issue no longer exists in the abstract.

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