Democratic outrage about the recently revealed ties Maine’s Republican majority in Augusta has with a national conservative advocacy group should be a call to citizen vigilance, not an indictment of the state GOP.
The American Legislative Exchange Council has developed an agenda of state-based laws that reflect Republican principles. Since Republicans won control of several state legislatures around the country in 2010 — including in Maine — they have turned to ALEC for model legislation.
ALEC’s short list of legislative proposals includes moving health insurance to more of a market-based model, tightening access to social safety net programs, ending public funding of campaigns, ending same-day voter registration and weakening unions in the public and private sectors.
Democrats have called ALEC a “corporate front group,” and it’s hard to disagree with that characterization if their claim that 98 percent of its funding comes from private business is true. Democrats see dark forces at work because the agenda comes from those intent on increasing their profits.
By contrast, similar Left-leaning groups mostly are supported by nonprofits and their aims are more altruistic, such as helping the poor and disenfranchised, boosting support for workers and pushing for a cleaner environment. Still, there are exceptions.
Unions have agendas they press into sympathetic legislators’ hands, and the aim of their proposals is to increase member wages. And some progressive advocacy groups, such as MoveOn.org, are funded by wealthy individuals such as George Soros.
But Democrats should be slow to accuse Republicans of sinister, Manchurian Candidate-like tactics. To expect citizen legislators to produce statutes that are legally sound and fully vetted for unintended consequences by themselves is unrealistic.
Whether an idea for a bill comes from a resident of the district whose name is kept confidential, from a national advocacy group whose corporate members are hoping to fatten their bottom line or from a brainstorm a legislator had while driving to Augusta, the final test lies beyond the idea’s genesis. Legislators must win support for their proposals from their colleagues, and they must answer for their votes to constituents.
It’s amusing how often the word “agenda” is used to denigrate political movements. It’s “the homosexual agenda” pushing for marriage rights, the “environmental agenda” that will make it illegal to cut a tree in Maine. Having an agenda is not inherently wrong; it represents coherent planning.
Certainly, interest groups have wish lists and strategies to achieve them. But to expect good government to emerge organically from the pure idealism of selfless elected officials is unrealistic.
Groups like ALEC have raised the level of sophistication of political manipulation. Advocates for transparency in government were able to mandate that lobbyists register, both in Augusta and Washington, D.C. But can those groups once-removed from lobbyists, such as ALEC, be required to identify themselves if they are players in developing policy? Should the governor and legislators be required to disclose their contact with such groups?
The best solution is for voters to become more attentive and for the news media to scrutinize government more closely. The real action comes in analyzing legislative proposals, not in determining their genesis; the old saying “the devil is in the details” is more true than ever.