Who’s Strangling Whom?

Jodi Hirsh wants you to believe that a shadowy, deep-pocketed, Washington-based organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has a “stranglehold on our statehouse.”  That’s the claim Ms. Hirsh, the Pennsylvania coordinator for the left-of-center People for the American Way, makes in a commentary currently running on PennLive.  As a former ALEC member, I’d like to take a minute to correct the record.

Ms. Hirsh makes three main charges against ALEC:  It’s run by evil corporations, it writes bills so legislators don’t have to, and it buys Pennsylvania legislators’ love.

Her first charge is self-evidently ridiculous.  People for the American Way, Ms. Hirsh’s employer, is itself a corporation—one that takes in millions of dollars a year, according to its own website (PDF).  I know a lot of businesses that would love to have that kind of revenue stream.

Her second complaint might sound more compelling, but it isn’t.  Yes, at ALEC meetings, members vote on model legislation that, if they so choose, they can then use as the foundation for real bills they introduce back home.  This role isn’t unique to ALEC.  For example, there is another national group called the National Conference of State Legislatures where the same thing happens.  And even if legislators don’t participate in any groups like this…come on, do you really think they write their own bills most of the time?  If so, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

Okay, okay, you say.  I get it.  But what about the nice wine?  Doesn’t Ms. Hirsh have a point about ALEC buying legislators’ love?  Not in the slightest.  If ALEC, which stands for limited government and free markets, truly had a stranglehold on our commonwealth, do you think for an instant that the Pennsylvania legislators who supposedly dance to its tune would have declined for years now to get government out of the booze business or bring about some sanity in public pensions?  There’s not enough free wine in the world to make that argument credible.

Obviously, ALEC is not the kind of organization that has a “stranglehold on our statehouse” and is creating an “increasingly disastrous problem” here in Pennsylvania.  If you want to read about an organization that really does fit that bill, see Jim Panyard’s latest piece from Media Trackers Pennsylvania on the so-called CLEAR Coalition.  Mr. Panyard reports that this group and its members have $150 million at their disposal, focus their attention on Pennsylvania, and are quite clearly having a huge impact on our legislators’ thinking.  

ALEC takes in one fifteenth of that sum and spreads it across the whole country, politely helping legislators come up with good ideas to increase prosperity. But it is groups like the CLEAR Coalition, dominated by government union bosses who force workers to pay dues that fund politics, that make policymakers afraid to deliver the policy changes most Pennsylvanians want.