The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) describes itself as “America’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism.” Wikipedia describes ALEC as “a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives that drafts and shares model state-level legislation for distribution among state governments in the United States.” Critics describe ALEC as a “corporate-funded [organization of] global corporations and state politicians [who] vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights [with] so-called ‘model bills’ [that] reach into almost every area of American life and often directly benefit huge corporations.”
In late July 2016 rumors of an unlikely yet worrisome alliance began to gain traction, after an investigative report purportedly uncovered ties between the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) and t. Those abbreviations might not mean very much to many readers, but for AARP members and seniors with familiarity with ALEC, the claims were very poorly received.
On 28 July 2016, progressive advocacy project The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) published an article in a series about ALEC titled “Revealed: AARP is Funding ALEC.” That report somewhat confusingly held that the AARP was “secretly funding” ALEC while not “exactly hiding” its relationship with the legislative council:
AARP, the non-profit seniors organization that exists to promote the financial security, pensions and healthcare of those over 50, is secretly funding the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization whose bills have acted against the interests of ordinary Americans, including retirees and their families.
The Center for Media and Democracy has learned that AARP has recently joined ALEC, and that it is a named sponsor of the ALEC annual meeting taking place in Indianapolis, Indiana from July 27-29, 2016.
AARP isn’t exactly hiding its new financial relationship with ALEC, at least to ALEC legislators. Its logo appears in the conference brochure (see below) and attendees at the conference were each provided with an AARP branded portable USB power pack as they registered for the event.
ALEC exists to help its corporate funders advance their lobbying agenda through pushing bills that ALEC peddles as national “model” legislation. As CMD has documented in numerous ways, ALEC is a pay-to-play operation.
Although CMD are not alone in their anti-ALEC stance, the group has devoted a considerable amount of effort into fighting ALEC. Founded in 1973, ALEC flew largely under the radar until CMD and other investigative journalism outfits began digging around the group’s practices and influence around 2011. ALEC was thrust into the spotlight after the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman prompted scrutiny of ALEC-linked “Stand Your Ground” laws passed at the behest of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
An April 2012 long-form piece in the Atlantic provided insight into ALEC (regularly dubbed a “bill mill”) just as it was attracting unwanted attention due to that confluence of factors. The Atlantic noted that ALEC was often described as creating “model legislation” at the behest of monied interests, which was presented to lawmakers in a practice deemed frighteningly corruptible by many:
To itself, ALEC is an organization dedicated to the advancement of free market and limited government principles through a unique “public-private partnership” between state legislators and the corporate sector. To its critics, it’s a shadowy back-room arrangement where corporations pay good money to get friendly legislators to introduce pre-packaged bills in state houses across the country. Started in the mid-1970s, ALEC’s existence has been long known but its practices, largely, have not; the group hasn’t been eager to tie its bills in Wisconsin to those in Ohio to those in North Carolina.
Lisa Graves is executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, the group that built ALEC Exposed. She’s also a former Justice Department official in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Said Graves on a call, “We built out the material using Google, the Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine, primary records that were previously on ALEC’s website, old old Nexis news clips, and the tobacco library,” as in the digital archive run by the University of California of San Francisco as part of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of the late ’90s. “There was a lot of material out there that was just not widely known.”
Having the bills all in one place painted a certain picture. “If it’s voter ID, it’s ALEC,” observed Doug Clopp, deputy director of programs at Common Cause. “If it’s anti-immigration bills written hand-in-glove with private prison corporations, it’s ALEC. If it’s working with the N.R.A. on ‘Shoot to Kill’ laws, it’s ALEC. When you start peeling back state efforts to opt out of the regional greenhouse gas initiative, it’s ALEC.” Adopted first in the states, by the time these laws bubble up to the national level, they’re the conventional wisdom on policy.
In short, corporations and lobbies ostensibly work with ALEC to draft bills for conservative legislators in particular, and identical bills created by ALEC (criticized for advancing the interests of a lobby or business entity rather than the constituents lawmakers are bound to represent) have been passed across several states. In the “Stand Your Ground” law’s case, the bill seemingly advanced NRA interests by making the use of firearms among civilians far less risky and the ownership of one far more attractive under the law.
CMD brought ALEC to the forefront and waged a very public battle against its influence, but the AARP claim penetrated deep among seniors who believed it nearly impossible for their interests (such as Social Security) to remain truly and neutrally advocated for by AARP under the circumstances described. Following the release of CMD’s report about ALEC and the AARP, the Los Angeles Times also attempted to further ties between the two organizations:
Among the policies that have been promoted by ALEC are several that arguably undermine the interests of seniors and retirees, AARP’s core constituency. ALEC has pushed for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which has saved Medicare enrollees millions of dollars by closing the Medicare drug benefit “donut hole.” It has opposed Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. It has targeted public pensions, pushing to cap benefits and shift workers toward defined contribution plans, which layer more market risk on individual workers’ shoulders.
That Times article included information released by the AARP in light of the sudden interest in the group’s ties to ALEC. The AARP confirmed that they had “paid a fee” to ALEC in 2016 and provided an explanation for their relationship with the controversial legislative organization:
In response to our queries, AARP gave a bit more detail on its relationship with ALEC while reiterating, “AARP’s engagement with ALEC is NOT an endorsement of the organization’s policies either past or present.” It specifically disavowed support for ALEC model bills seeking a constitutional amendment for a balanced federal budget, which is a direct attack on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; the repeal of the Affordable Care Act; nor the other model legislation posted on ALEC’s website. AARP has advocated in opposition of these proposals in the states and in Congress and will continue to do so.” ALEC hasn’t responded to our request for comment.
AARP’s statement acknowledged that it paid a fee to ALEC in 2016 to provide “an opportunity to engage with state legislators and advance our members’ priorities from a position of strength at ALEC’s annual meeting. AARP added, “given that Republicans control one or more chambers in 39 of the nation’s 50 state legislatures, we believe having a seat at the table at the ALEC annual meeting was necessary to our mission of representing the interests and needs of people 50-plus and their families.”
The statement didn’t address CMD’s assertion that AARP had paid fees or dues to ALEC in the past, or specify how much it had paid for the meeting sponsorship.
That newspaper wasn’t the only entity grilling the AARP over ALEC ties. At least two contentious threads appeared on the AARP’s web site forums after the 28 July 2016 CMD article of, in which members expressed what looked to be universal disapproval of such a connection. In response, a community moderator stated to forum participants that:
Being non-partisan means interacting with organizations on all sides of key issues — not just those whose views are identical to your own. AARP is committed to serving a diverse membership and fulfilling our responsibility to engage with groups and individuals with different perspectives on issues important to the 50+ and their families.
In 2016, AARP paid a fee to ALEC, which gave us an opportunity to engage with state legislators and advance our members’ priorities from a position of strength at ALEC’s annual meeting.
AARP’s engagement with ALEC is NOT an endorsement of the organization’s policies either past or present. As is the case with other groups AARP engages with, there are many issues and areas where we strongly disagree with ALEC’s position or approach.
For example, AARP does NOT support ALEC’s model legislation on TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights); a Constitutional Amendment for a Balanced Federal Budget, which is a direct attack on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; the repeal of the Affordable Care Act; nor the other model legislation posted on its website. AARP has advocated in opposition of these proposals in the states and in Congress and will continue to do so.
AARP monitors and values member input and we have taken note of all your comments.
Our goal is that all of our activities will come together to help shape and enrich the experience of aging for our members and for America.
A related organization, the Alliance for Retired Americans, has also issued a statement decrying the AARP’s engagement with ALEC:
We’re deeply disappointed to learn that AARP is sponsoring ALEC, an organization that has supported state efforts that hurt seniors and working Americans.
ALEC is a major force behind the rise of state Voter ID laws, which disproportionately hurt seniors and take away their ability to cast their votes, and have opposed efforts to rein in prescription drug prices.
Other companies, including Ford and Google, have withdrawn their support for ALEC. If AARP truly represents the interests of seniors, then it should do the same.