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Public Citizen: Corporate Access to State Lawmakers Facilitated by Taxpayer-Funded “Associations“

Corporate influence on lawmaking transcends deep pockets at election time.

(Image: Business Meeting via Shutterstock)

New report shows Citizens United, which opened the door to limitless campaign contributions, is just the tip of the iceberg in how corporations buy access and bring influence to bear on laws and lawmakers across the nation.

One week after the most expensive election in the history of the United States, Public Citizen – the non-profit organization founded by consumer advocate and long-time activist Ralph Nader – published a report showing campaign finance is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how multinational corporations wield influence over US politics.

In its report, Access for Sale: A Report on Corporate Funding of Associations of State and Local Government Officials, Public Citizen shows how a wide array of taxpayer-subsidized “associations” that provide education for state and local legislators, also provide lobbyists an open door for influence-peddling on behalf of corporations that have usurped the democratic process nationwide.

Listed among the associations in question for excessive corporate influence are ostensibly benign entities like the National Governors Association, National League of Cities and United States Conference of Mayors, as well as the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments. We referred to these entities as the “Other ALECs” in a similar expose we wrote for Truthout earlier this year.

The one association missing from the report was the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), now infamous for its hyper-conservative agenda and model legislation, such as the Voter ID bills that have passed in state houses across the nation. Public Citizen intentionally excluded ALEC from its report, citing important distinctions between ALEC and the “Other ALECs,” namely that the “Other ALECs” are largely funded by public largesse and are non-ideological – at least in theory. ALEC, on the other hand, is a hyper-conservative, almost completely corporate-funded entity.

“Unlike ALEC,” Public Citizen explains, “the [Other ALECs] associations … are legitimate, independent organizations of government officials, not explicitly designed to advance corporate and special agendas.” Or to put it another way, ALEC was intended to be a privately driven “corporate bill mill” from day one, while the “Other ALECs” were set up to serve the democratic process, but have been commandeered by the same special interests that govern ALEC.

“Almost all of these associations have no meaningful rules in place to prevent corporate funders from using their sponsorships to influence officials’ policy-making decisions,” according to the report.

In fact, they often encourage private sponsors to peddle influence to their membership. For example, corporate sponsors of the Council of State Governments (CSG) “have the opportunity to interact with state policymakers through national and regional conferences, program and policy work, and international exchanges” in order to “offer their perspectives,” according to their web site. CSG’s membership includes every elected official from all three branches of government on the state level.

Public Citizen offers detailed information on all of the different associations that serve as forums for corporate influence over politics. But how do special interests use these forums and how effective are they really?

As we reported earlier this year, state and local elected officials are not usually experts on every piece of public policy and often come into office unprepared for the job at hand, sometimes only filling the role on a part-time basis. On top of that, so much time is spent on tasks like preparing for the next campaign cycle that legislators often struggle to find time to do anything else, like digging deep on policy specifics or taking the next step and reading and writing their own legislation.

Associations from the National Conference of State Legislators, to the Council of State Governments provide education sessions and sometimes even model legislation to help the legislators cope with their large jobs. But when so much corporate money is allowed into these associations, the education and the legislation is skewed in favor of corporations over the public.

Corporations have devised what we dubbed a “corporate playbook” for effective “stealth lobbying” through the “Other ALECs.” Stealth lobbying is defined simply as acts of lobbying that are not publicly reported in lobbying registries because they are done specifically via these associations.

Steps one and two of the stealth lobbying playbook are simple: Corporations make tax-deductible donations to these associations. This gains them representation on boards, task forces and other decision-making bodies. The more nonprofit associations they pay to be a part of, the more influence that sponsor will have.

As Public Citizen reports, “NCSL takes money from corporate wrongdoers like BP, from alcohol makers Diageo and Anheuser-Busch and from a host of pharmaceutical companies. The NGA is similarly well-lubricated by Big Pharma, the energy industry and the health insurance industry.”

Step three: Set a slanted education agenda through these associations. Sometimes corporate lobbyists even teach the sessions they schedule. “Companies that rely on governmental contracts to sustain their business essentially buy an opportunity to market to officials, which gives them a leg up…. ” writes Public Citizen.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle may think they are getting a neutral education from “experts” in the fields, when really they are getting what amounts to corporate propaganda. The report further explains that the companies that sponsor and host educational events “appear authoritative by sitting on panels at conferences or circulating white papers to association members.”

For example, we reported that in 2011, the Council of State Governments scheduled an education session titled, “The Global Value of Coal: Clean Coal Technologies Open the Door,” which presented “clean coal” as the panacea for “global electricity poverty.” Not surprisingly, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Technologies has been a sponsor of the association in the past.

Step four is a classic: Schmooze at the associations’ conferences. In practice this means lobbyists host “lavish events that occur on the sidelines of these conferences” and provide “numerous opportunities to ‘network’ with the association members at cocktail parties and receptions, which are often closed to the public,” wrote Public Citizen. In other words, it wrote, associations provide “lobbying opportunities by another name, “for corporate interests to create what are often lifetime relationships with politicians.

Step five is to recommend model legislation through the Council of State Governments (or ALEC) and step six is to guide a private agenda through the state governments and into law throughout the nation by drawing on all of the influence acquired through steps one through five. As we pointed out throughout our series and as Public Citizen explained, “There is no doubt that corporate sponsors are getting what they pay for: the ears of decision makers whose decisions will have a direct impact on their bottom lines.”

Through this process, corporate agendas like virtual charter schools, biometric testing, union-busting, tort reform, limited gun restrictions and many others have become the bipartisan consensus in state houses nationwide.

Through the corporate playbook for stealth lobbying, Public Citizen concludes that “the voices of average citizens are increasingly drowned out, with corporate interests instead of public interest guiding government decisions and actions…. In order for these organizations to repair their credibility and serve as mechanisms that promote citizens’ interests, they must put a stop to unethical corporate sponsorship programs.”

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