House Leader Calls for Investigation into ALEC Efforts to Undermine National Safeguards

On April 16, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, sent a letter to the Department of the Interior requesting an investigation into the American Legislative Exchange Council's (ALEC) state-level efforts to push legislation that could undermine federal land management policies and directives.

ALEC Pushes the Envelope

ALEC's membership is comprised of private corporations and over 2,000 state legislators from across the country. While a full list of ALEC's private members is not publically available, the Koch Brothers, Exxon Mobil, and Dow Chemical Company are among its corporate members. ALEC is well known for pushing policies that promote corporate interests at the expense of the public interest. These members join with state legislators on "task forces" that meet behind closed doors to discuss issues and draft "model" bills and resolutions.

Grijalva's letter raises concerns about whether ALEC's activities are permissible, given that it is registered as a 501(c)(3) organization. Specifically, Grijalva's letter asks the Department of the Interior to look into ALEC's state-level advocacy of "model" bills designed to undermine federal land management policies. The letter also encourages the agency to coordinate its investigation with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) "to determine whether ALEC activities violate federal, state or local lobbying and disclosure regulations." Grijalva notes in the letter that despite ALEC's legal status as a 501(c)(3) organization, the group "has mounted an aggressive effort to change state laws in ways that undermine decades of precedent on the use and management of public lands without scrutiny or serious federal oversight."

Members of the public and public interest organizations have also called for investigations into ALEC for advocating that states adopt "model" bills designed to undermine federal health, safety, and environmental initiatives that are largely supported by the American people and businesses alike.

ALEC’s Activities Seek to Weaken Public Protections

In July 2011, the Center for Media and Democracy launched a website, ALEC Exposed, where it publicized hundreds of ALEC's model bills and resolutions, many of which have been proposed in state legislatures across the country. The website now serves as a centralized, collaborative hub on all things ALEC. "Through the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, global corporations and state politicians vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights," the website explains. "These so-called 'model bills' reach into almost every area of American life and often directly benefit huge corporations."

In November 2013, the Center for Effective Government released a report, ALEC's Latest Trojan Horse: The Attack on Standards and Safeguards Moves to the States, which highlighted state-level model bills being pushed by ALEC to "reform" the regulatory process by expanding or institutionalizing requirements that delay and weaken important safeguards and increase the already outsized influence of corporations in setting environmental, food, consumer, and worker safety policies.

A month later, the Brookings Institute published an analysis finding that ALEC has pushed model bills in state legislatures across the country at a "non-trivial rate." During 2011-2012, at least 132 ALEC "model" bills were introduced at the state level. ALEC representatives had previously been quoted by The New York Times boasting that "nearly 1,000 state bills each year are based at least in part on ALEC model legislation."

In a report release last June, the ALEC task force on Energy, Environment, and Agriculture laid out its arguments against environmental initiatives and recommended "model" legislation that states opposed to these critical health and safety rules can adopt. Examples of ALEC's extreme model bills that would undermine public safeguards include:

  • Economic Impact Statement Act: This bill is similar to the federal Congressional Review Act (CRA), which provides that before a final rule can take effect, the federal agency issuing the rule must submit to Congress and the Comptroller General a copy of the rule and statement describing its purpose and proposed effective date. The CRA also provides members of Congress a chance to review and disapprove of final rules issued by federal agencies.

    However, ALEC's model state bill would go much further than its federal counterpart. Before a state agency could even propose a rule, it would first have to submit to the state legislature a copy of the rule and a lengthy, overly complex economic impact statement that includes calculations such as the potential effect of the regulation on the cost of living or the state tax base, or the potential effect on market competition within the state, with other states, and globally. The legislature would then be provided an opportunity to disapprove the proposed rule.

    The Center for Effective Government and the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards have warned that attempts to use the federal CRA to attack proposed rules would set a dangerous precedent by allowing any member of Congress who dislikes a proposed agency action to challenge the rule before the agency has even finished writing it. ALEC's model bill would similarly make it possible for any state legislator to circumvent the state's legislative process by attacking important safeguards while they are still in development.

  • Intrastate Coal and Use Act: This bill provides that only the state may issue environmental regulations on business activities performed in-state when the products of those activities originate and remain within the state's borders. Perhaps the most troubling provision of the bill is the declaration that activities involving the transportation and disposal of hazardous waste, the release of pollutants into air or water, and virtually any activity having to do with coal mining or the production of chemically altered coal products are not subject to federal laws or regulations unless a state or federal court has found that those activities cause "quantifiable harm to any person, businesses, or places beyond the border of the state." In other words, states that adopt this bill would elect to simply ignore any rules issued by a federal agency, even though such an action would be in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

  • Regulatory Review and Rescission Act: This bill would remove regulatory responsibilities from the experts within state agencies and instead allow non-expert state legislators make decisions on critical public safeguards based on the costs, benefits, and potential employment impacts of the standards. The bill would also establish a review body tasked with reviewing all state regulations every three years and allow the governor to unilaterally rescind any rule after the regulatory review is completed, even if a rule produces far more benefits than costs.

  • Climate Accountability Act: Under this bill, before any state funds could be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a state would have to complete an assessment of the number of tons of carbon dioxide equivalent that the action is expected to reduce, the total costs of the action, and the cost per ton of reduction. According to ALEC's report, this bill is to be introduced only once it is clear that a state's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions cannot be stopped.

The Public's Chance to Weigh In

The concerns about the legality and ethics of ALEC's state-level efforts are well-founded and worthy of an investigation. With numerous calls for a probe into the organization's activities, it is time for action. Grijalva's letter calls for a response from the Department of the Interior by May 2, although no response has been made public as of May 6. In the meantime, members of the public can take action by signing a petition calling on the IRS to conduct an investigation into ALEC's activities.

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