By David Armiak and Alex Kotch
Documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) show that a powerful corporate lobby front group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), is playing a leading role in the right-wing movement to push for early reopening of the economy amidst the coronavirus pandemic that has cost the United States 61,680 lives to date.
ALEC is a corporate pay-to-play operation where legislators and corporate lobbyists vote behind closed doors to adopt model legislation on a broad range of public policy issues.
At a time when many hard-hit states and medical experts are lamenting the lack of federal leadership in dealing with the health crisis, the ALEC documents call for action to "bring the economy back to life through a free market approach that gets big government out of the way."
In an email to legislators obtained by CMD, ALEC touts that "your ALEC team has been value-pushing your ideas and solutions into the mainstream" with "9 across the States podcast episodes with guests such as Newt Gingrich," "30 policy prescriptions," and hosting of "9 calls with top government officials and policy experts."
ALEC is also coordinating a sign-on letter from "policy leaders and elected officials" to President Trump and state leaders urging them to "reopen the economy and get people back to work." The letter praises Trump for his "Opening Up America Again" plan and thanks him for a "disaster response [that] is locally executed, state managed and federally supported."
Recent polling shows ALEC's aggressive position on resuming commercial activity to be outside the mainstream of public opinion. Three in four voters (73 percent) think we need to continue social distancing measures despite the impact on the economy, 80 percent want more testing before schools and restaurants reopen, and 65 percent said "they did not want to go back to work without more thorough testing."
ALEC writes in the letter that, "It is possible and preferable for employers to implement best practices to protect the health of their customers and employees – without micromanagement from the government," but industry practices during the pandemic suggest otherwise.
"Essential" businesses that have stayed open have repeatedly jeopardized the health of their workers, including "thousands of employees across the country" at meat processing plants and shift workers in over 55 of Amazon's fulfillment centers who have contracted the coronavirus.
A number of governors and health experts have warned that reopening the economy too early could make the coronavirus pandemic worse.
Meanwhile, ALEC is attempting to use the national crisis to leverage movement on its pro-corporate policy agenda. The sign-on letter states in ALEC fashion that a "proven formula of tax relief, deregulation, and lawsuit reform" are keys to rebuilding the economy.
ALEC and the Koch influence network pushed hard for the massive 2017 tax giveaway to corporations and the wealthy that not only has not paid for itself, as Secretary Mnuchin notoriously argued it would, but as of January had led to a national deficit that is 28 percent greater than the Congressional Budget Office projected before the tax cuts.
Exploiting the opportunity of the coronavirus crisis, ALEC has put together a "policy prescriptions" wish list on its site composed of model bills it has drafted and recommends legislative members push for.
Emails obtained through records requests by CMD show that ALEC has been working closely with the Trump administration to convince members that now is the time to reopen. ALEC's CEO Lisa Nelson wrote in an email to legislators Tuesday that ALEC hosted a call with Vice President Mike Pence (who once quipped, "I can say I was for ALEC before it was cool") and over 300 members of the "ALEC family" to discuss reopening the economy on April 22.
Pence said on the call that the country "will look much different -- and much better -- by Memorial Day."
Nelson also stated that ALEC would be hosting calls about reopening the economy with Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia (April 29) and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (May 5).
On March 30, ALEC hosted a conference call for its members and partners that featured National Federation of Independent Business's Senior Director of Government Relations Kevin Kuhlman and Job Creators Network's President and CEO Alfredo Ortiz to discuss how to help "businesses in their communities access capital and restart their businesses."
ALEC legislators and lobbyists will have an opportunity to put their words into action in July, as ALEC announced this week that it will be going ahead with its plans for an in-person Annual meeting in Orlando Florida on July 15-17. Nelson wrote that the conference will "explore solutions that will empower our attendees with freedom-based policies as we rebuild our states."
Florida ranks eighth in the country for the most COVID-19 cases.
"Save Our Country Coalition"
ALEC CEO Nelson serves on the national leadership council of the recently launched "Save Our Country Coalition" (SOCC). The right-wing effort is chaired by ALEC's favorite economist Art Laffer, who writes its annual state economic booklet "Rich States, Poor States" alongside Stephen Moore and Jonathan Williams. Moore is also on the leadership council.
Mary Kiffmeyer, a Minnesota state senator who is an ALEC co-chair of the state, is on the leadership council, and Linda Upmeyer, the former speaker of the Iowa state House and a member of the ALEC board of directors, is a member of the steering committee.
SOCC lists the following as its "key principles to abide by in order to reopen US society and preserve the American way of life":
- Immediately reopen the economy, while implementing the best workplace practices to protect the health of our citizens.
- Restore the essential principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility by stopping the trillions of dollars of federal spending that is imperiling America's economic future and dangerously escalating our national debt.
- Incentivize the rapid rebuilding of our economy through proven formulas: tax cuts, deregulation, and lawsuit reform.
- Preserve federalism within the rule of law and respect the rights of the states in dealing with crises such as the coronavirus pandemic.
- Protect the individual liberties of our citizens from unconstitutional power grabs by the federal, state and local governments.
ALEC is funded by and deeply tied to the Koch political network. The latest available IRS filings show Charles Koch gave ALEC $334,000 in 2018, and Koch's Americans for Prosperity was a "Vice Chairman" sponsor of the 2019 ALEC Annual Meeting.
That meeting saw 69 Koch network foot soldiers in attendance, according to an attendee list obtained by Documented. Koch Companies Public Sector's Michael Morgan is a long time member of ALEC's Private Enterprise Advisory Council.
The Koch connections go far beyond ALEC. On the "National Leadership Council" are:
- Stephen Moore of FreedomWorks and the Koch-funded Heritage Foundation. Moore is a co-founder of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, the president of which, Phil Kerpen, is the former vice president of Americans for Prosperity.
- Ed Meese of the Heritage Foundation.
- Bill Walton, a media figure who is a trustee at the Koch-backed American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
- Victor Davis Hanson of the Koch-funded Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
- Timothy Nash, a business professor at Northwood University, who has been director of the Charles Koch Foundation's Koch Scholars program at the school and is affiliated with the Koch-funded Mackinac Center, as well as ALEC. In 2014, Nash wrote an op-ed praising Koch Industries and the "exceptional leadership" of Charles and David Koch while failing to disclose his connections to them.
On Save Our Country's "Steering Committee" are:
- James L. Martin, chairman of the formerly Koch-funded 60 Plus Association.
- Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and a close Trump ally, who formerly worked for the Heritage Foundation.
- Tracy Sharp, president and CEO of the Koch-backed State Policy Network.
- Alfredo Ortiz of the Koch network-tied Job Creators Network.
- Myron Ebell of the Koch-backed Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Several business executives are also part of the leadership council, including Gristedes Foods CEO John Catsimatdis, a billionaire Trump donor who has advised the president on his coronavirus response in private conversations.
Hate Groups Help Out
Several far-right extremists have leadership roles in the Save Our Country Coalition, including:
- Frank Gaffney, founder of the anti-Muslim hate group the Center for Security Policy, and Clare Lopez, vice president for research and analysis at the center, are on the steering committee.
- Ken Blackwell, Ohio's former secretary of state and a current senior fellow at the anti-LGBTQ hate group the Family Research Council, serves on the leadership council.
- Sandy Rios, director of government affairs at the American Family Association, another anti-LGBTQ hate group, sits on the steering committee.
- Anne Schlafly Cori, chair of her late mother Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, serves on the steering committee. The Eagle Forum, while not considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is a religious right organization that has associated with anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim hate figures. Eagle Forum president Eunie Smith, executive director Kirsten Hasler, and Becky Garritson, executive director of the forum's Alabama chapter, are also on the steering committee.
As Blackwell works with the Save Our Country Coalition, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins has spoken with Trump on the phone, urging him to pressure governors to relax restrictions on churches and businesses. The Family Research Council holds a weekly call with Trump administration officials, who have included Attorney General Bill Barr, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of Homeland Security.
A memo released by Barr on April 27 directed Justice Department lawyers to prioritize litigation against "overbearing" state and local COVID-19 safety measures that discriminate against "religious institutions and religious believers."
Arn Pearson contributed to this report.