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“Shining A Light On ALEC’s Power To Shape Policy”: A Slow-Motion Corporate Takeover Of Our Democracy

It’s amazing how a little sunlight will change the behavior of some of the biggest names in corporate America — sunlight here meaning greater transparency and accountability.

It’s also amazing how the U.K.’s The Guardian is covering this changed behavior — and its potential consequences for every American — without much competition from U.S.-based media. It seems that reporters in Washington in particular can’t be bothered.

Over the past several decades, one of the country’s most influential political organizations — the 40-year-old American Legislative Exchange Council — was able to operate largely under the radar. Never heard of it? That’s by design. Founded in 1973 by conservative political operatives, ALEC has been successful in shaping  public policy to benefit its corporate patrons in part because few people — including reporters — knew anything about the organization, much less how it went about getting virtually identical laws passed in a multitude of states.

That began to change two years ago when an insider leaked thousands of pages of documents — including more than 800 “model” bills and resolutions, showing just how close ALEC is with big corporate interests and revealing how it goes about getting laws passed to enhance the profits of its sponsors, usually at the expense of consumers.

The Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit corporate watchdog organization, sifted through the documents and posted them on a dedicated website, Those bills and resolutions, drafted by or in collaboration with industry lobbyists and lawyers, “reveal the corporate collaboration reshaping our democracy, state by state,” CMD says on the website.

I reviewed all of the health care legislation in the leaked documents and wrote about what I found for The Nation magazine in July 2011. It became clear from my review that health insurers felt one of the best ways to block the profit-threatening provisions of ObamaCare would be to use ALEC to disseminate bills it had helped write to friendly state legislators.  It was also clear that ALEC’s staff and membership had been at work for more than a decade on a broad range of issues important to my former industry, from turning over state Medicaid programs to private insurers to letting them market highly profitable junk insurance.

While ALEC-member legislators hail from every state, the organization has been especially successful in getting bills introduced in legislatures controlled by Republicans. As The New York Times noted in an editorial in February, more than 50 of ALEC’s model bills were introduced in Virginia alone last year.

In addition to insurance companies like State Farm and UnitedHealthcare, ALEC’s corporate membership has included big names ranging from ExxonMobil and Wells Fargo to Johnson & Johnson and Kraft. And it has worked closely with groups like the National Rifle Association as well.

It is the organization’s association with the NRA, in fact, that has led to dozens of corporations severing their ties with ALEC, as The Guardian reported.

Soon after the NRA succeeded in pushing a stand-your-ground bill through the Florida legislature — which George Zimmerman used in his defense in the Trayvon Martin case — ALEC adopted it as a model for other states. The group took that action after a 2005 NRA presentation to ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force. As The Center for Media and Democracy reported, the corporate co-chair of that task force at the time was Walmart, the country’s largest seller of rifles. Since then, more than two dozen states have passed laws identical or similar to the ALEC/NRA stand-your-ground model legislation.

News coverage of ALEC’s role in getting the controversial law enacted from coast to coast — coupled with CMD-led disclosures about the organization over the past two years — has caused many of ALEC’s longtime corporate members to abandon it, according to The Guardian.

Documents obtained by the British newspaper indicate that since 2011, ALEC has lost more than 60 corporate members, a hit so severe that during the first six months of this year it has “suffered a hole in its budget of more than a third of its projected income.” It has also lost nearly 400 state legislative members during the same time frame.

The organization has launched what it refers to as the “Prodigal Son Project” to woo back companies like Amazon, Coca-Cola, GE, Kraft and McDonald’s that have dropped their membership. Another “prodigal son” ALEC hopes to welcome back: that big retailer and rifle seller, Walmart. The loss of Walmart alone undoubtedly was a major contributor to the budget shortfall, considering the size of the company.

Meanwhile, just blocks from Capitol Hill where many Washington reporters spend their days, ALEC last week held its annual “policy summit,” but very few of those reporters felt the summit was worth their time, despite the fact that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., were on the agenda. And despite the fact that even with fewer resources, ALEC is still hugely influential in shaping public policy. As Nancy MacLean, professor of history and public policy at Duke University, noted in a May column for North Carolina Policy Watch, “What ALEC and the companies that provide it with millions in operating funds seek is, in effect, a slow-motion corporate takeover of our democracy.”

That might be a story worth covering.


By: Wendell Potter, Center for Public Integrity, December 9, 2013

December 11, 2013 Posted by | ALEC, Corporations, State Legislatures | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Women Are From Earth, Republicans Are From Mars”: Demonstrating Once Again How Not To Message To Women

We’re well into the 21st century, and both the leaders and candidates in the Republican Party are well into their respective adulthoods. How is it that they are still reaching for some Dobie Gillis-style handbook on How to Talk to Girls?

The GOP did not do well with female voters in 2012, and lost a theirs-for-the-taking Senate race in Missouri because of some truly remarkably stupid comments the party’s Senate candidate made about “legitimate rape.” Since then, we have had a sitting Republican U.S. senator talk about the “hormones” that lead men in the military to sexually assault their female comrades, and we have seen the party’s last presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, discuss how he’s learned that when one employs women, one must be flexible to make sure they can be home at 5 to cook dinner for their families. Perhaps he found those job candidates in one of his binders full of women. And maybe he should ask Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a member of the House Republican leadership who just gave birth to her third child while serving as a congresswoman.

There’s no better example of how women can be parents, spouses and lawmakers, but others in the GOP are still not getting it, and it’s baffling why. Speaker John Boehner recognizes the problem, and spoke to Politico for a story about how the GOP was in training to learn how to win over females’ votes. The party, Boehner said, is:

trying to get them to be a little more sensitive. You know, you look around the Congress, there are a lot more females in the Democratic caucus than there are in the Republican conference. And some of our members just aren’t as sensitive as they ought to be.

You think?

The problem here is that the mostly-male members of the GOP establishment sit around and try to deal with women as though females are some kind of bizarre and baffling other species, as though they couldn’t possibly care about the same things men do or have informed opinions about them. Instead we continue to see evidence that GOP candidates are unable to stop patronizing women and treating them as though females have some extra, irrational gene that must be handled. Iowa Senate candidate Mark Jacobs, asked on a radio show how he would reach out to female voters in a way that differs from talking to male voters, said:

I think you have to connect with women on an emotional level. And with a wife of 25 years and an 18-year-old daughter, I’ve had a lot of coaching on that.

Jacobs makes himself sound like the hapless male victim of a home full of surging estrogen. And worse, he implicitly buys into the fallacy that kept women out of positions of power for years – the idea that men think but women feel, ergo we need to put the thinkers in charge of the governments and economies of the world. They’ll need to think a little harder if they want to get electoral support from women, who make up the strong majority of voters. Because if Republican men lose women voters again, how will that make them feel?


By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, December 10, 2013

December 11, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Republicans, War On Women | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Making The Poor, And The U.S. Poorer Still”: It’s Both Unjust And Economically Unsound For Congress To Cut Benefits To The Poor

Congress may take up legislation this week to cut food stamps. The Senate passed a bill in June mandating $4 billion in cuts over 10 years; the House version, passed in September, imposes nearly $40 billion in reductions. A conference committee has been charged with resolving these differences. Somehow, this negotiation is occurring amid the worst poverty levels in two decades, a weak overall economy and rapidly falling budget deficits. Under these circumstances, it would be economically and morally unsound to carry out the cuts.

Nearly 20 percent of Americans are officially poor or near poor. The Census Bureau reports that 15 percent of the population — nearly 47 million people — lives in poverty, including 22 percent of children. For an individual, this means annual income of $12,000 or less. For a family of four, the poverty threshold is $24,000 or less. Consider what living on those amounts would mean.

Roughly 18 million other people are near poor, living within 130 percent of the poverty line, according to census data. For individuals, this means earning $15,000 or less. These people often weave in and out of official poverty, depending on the month.

Most Americans living in poverty experience hunger or the pervasive fear of it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 49 million Americans, including 16 million children, lived in food-insecure households last year. That means that at some point in 2012, these households did not have enough food or were uncertain of having enough. That is as if all of California, Oregon and Washington were experiencing hunger or were afraid of it. There are serious social, economic and health consequences; for instance, diabetes, obesity and other chronic conditions afflict Americans who don’t have access to adequate nutrition.

Total federal spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), this country’s main hunger prevention program, was $82.5 billion in fiscal 2013. To some that sounds like a lot, but it’s a small fraction of a $3.5 trillion budget and $16 trillion economy. This is evident when per-capita benefits are studied: The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act temporarily raised the weekly SNAP benefit by $25 to $33 for a family of four. But that temporary increase was allowed to expire this fall, so the SNAP benefit is back to the lower figure, or less than $1.40 per person per meal. These are small amounts relative to grocery costs, and even then only those with incomes below 130 percent of the poverty line are eligible for the aid.

It is hard to reconcile traditional American values of hard work and generosity with the levels of poverty and fear of hunger in our country, especially because large shares of those suffering this plight work. Nearly 11 million working Americans had annual income below the poverty line last year.

The working poor or near poor are also disadvantaged by our tax system. When a low-wage worker gets a raise or his or her spouse joins the workforce, food stamps are cut back. The family’s Medicaid eligibility is in jeopardy, and earned-income tax credit refunds are reduced or eliminated. A November 2012 Congressional Budget Office analysis concluded that the marginal tax rate imposed on increased income for such workers can be as much as 95 cents on every additional dollar earned. This is counterproductive.

Food stamps aren’t just a question of social justice; they are also a matter of economic policy. SNAP spending was increased in 2009 as part of the stimulus legislation to help rescue the economy. Like other elements of that legislation, the idea was to put money into the pockets of financially distressed Americans who would immediately spend it. The CBO reported that this legislation was largely effective in protecting the economy. More broadly, investments such as SNAP equip the poor and near poor to succeed economically. Good nutrition — as well as health care, education and secure housing — is a requisite for productivity, helping unemployed or marginally employed workers move into better jobs. This also allows them to build a better life for their children.

We believe that it would be both unjust and economically unsound for Congress to cut benefits to the poor and near poor. It has been a generation since our country last had a robust conversation about combating poverty. Now is the time to reinvigorate that conversation, not cut needed benefits.

By: Robert E. Rubin, Roger C. Altman and Melissa Kearney, Opinion Pages, The Washington Post, December 8, 2013

December 11, 2013 Posted by | Congress, Poverty | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Chamberlain Shook Hands With Hitler”: By His Own Reasoning, John McCain Is Neville Chamberlain

President Obama delivered a rather beautiful tribute this morning to Nelson Mandela at the memorial service for in Johannesburg, where the U.S. president received an extraordinarily warm welcome as one of the world’s most popular leaders. The domestic political chatter has decided the remarks and the reception aren’t terribly important.

What does matter, apparently, is the “selfie” Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt took with Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the perfunctory handshakes Obama made with other heads of state on the stage, including Cuba’s Raul Castro.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday compared President Obama’s handshake with Cuban leader Raul Castro to Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Adolph Hitler.

“It just gives Raul some propaganda to continue to prop up his dictatorial regime,” McCain told PRI’s Todd Zwillich. “Why should you shake hands with someone who is keeping Americans in prison? I mean, what’s the point?

“Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler,” the Arizona lawmaker said, referring to the British prime minister’s handshake with the Nazi leader after Great Britain agreed to Germany’s takeover of the Sudentenland in Czechoslovakia.

In case you’re thinking this is an exaggeration, and even McCain wouldn’t be so reckless as to say something this foolish on the record, there’s an audio clip confirming the accuracy of the quote.

It’s been nearly two whole weeks since congressional Republicans compared the president to Chamberlain, so I guess we were due?

In terms of responding to McCain on the merits, we could explain that Raul Castro isn’t Hitler. And we could note that a polite handshake bears no resemblance to the agreement struck in Munich in 1938. And we could mention that the reflexive reaction from Republicans to play the Hitler card at a moment’s notice became tiresome a long time ago.

But let’s put all of that aside and instead focus on an event from recent memory: in August 2009, McCain traveled to Libya, where he personally visited with Muammar Gadhafi, shook the dictator’s hand, praised him publicly, and even bowed to him, all while discussing delivery of American military equipment to the Libyan regime.

McCain later described Gadhafi as a modern-day Hitler. By his own reasoning, wouldn’t that make McCain … Neville Chamberlain?


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 10, 2013

December 11, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Unless You’re One Of The Unlucky Ones”: Americans Suddenly Discovering How Insurance Works

It’s been said to the point of becoming cliche that once Democrats passed significant health-care reform, they’d “own” everything about the American health-care system for good or ill. For some time to come, people will blame Barack Obama for health-care problems he had absolutely nothing to do with. But there’s a corollary to that truism we’re seeing play out now, which is that what used to be just “a sucky thing that happened to me” or “something about the way insurance works that I don’t particularly like”—things that have existed forever—are now changing into issues, matters that become worthy of media attention and are attributed to policy choices, accurately or not. Before now, millions of Americans had health insurance horror stories. But they didn’t have an organizing narrative around them, particularly one the news media would use as a reason to tell them.

The latest has to do with the provider networks that insurance companies put together. This is something insurance companies have done for a long time, because it enables them to limit costs. If an insurer has a lot of customers in an area, it can say to doctors, “We’ll put you in our provider network, giving you access to all our customers. But we only pay $50 for an office visit. Take it or leave it.” An individual doctor might think that it’s less than she’d like to be paid, but she needs those patients, so she’ll say yes. Or she might decide that she has enough loyal patients to keep her business running, and she wants to charge $100 for an office visit, so she’ll say no.

So every year, doctors move in and out of those private-provider networks, and the insurers adjust what they pay for various visits and procedures, and inevitably some people find that their old doctor is no longer in their network. Or they change jobs and find the same thing when they get new insurance. And that can be a hassle.

But now they have someone new to blame: not the insurance company that established the network, and not the doctor that chose not to be a part of it, but Barack Obama. It’s not just my hassle, it’s a national issue. As Politico reported, “Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said to reporters on Tuesday that the ‘fundamentally flawed’ health care law is ‘causing people to lose the doctor of their choice.’ Chief GOP investigator Darrell Issa has launched a House probe into the doctor claim. And House Republicans have highlighted the physician predicament in their weekly GOP addresses.” So to reiterate: Your insurance company set terms for its network that your doctor didn’t like. Your doctor decided not to be in that network. And that, of course, is Barack Obama’s fault.

Before we move on, there’s something we should note. You know who never loses their doctor? People who have single-payer insurance, that’s who. If you live in pretty much any other industrialized country in the world, you don’t have to worry whether your doctor accepts the national health plan that insures you and everyone else, because every doctor accepts it. Even here in America, there are people who almost never have to worry about losing their doctor: the elderly people who benefit from America’s single-payer plan, Medicare. Despite their constant gripes about payment levels, 90 percent of doctors accept Medicare, because there are just too many Medicare patients and doctors don’t want to be shut out of that business.

“Obamacare will make you lose your doctor!” may be the attack of this week, but conservatives are even trying to blame Barack Obama for the basic way insurance itself works. There’s a lot of talk about what a raw deal Obamacare is, a message that’s being aimed at young people in particular to try to convince them to stay uninsured. As Jonathan Cohn says, “The simplest way to describe Obamacare is as a transfer from the lucky to the unlucky.” That’s not just true of Obamacare, it’s true of insurance generally. All insurance.

The way insurance works is that unless you’re one of the unlucky ones, in purely financial terms, your insurance costs more than you gain from it. Have you ever sat down with all the bills you’ve paid for car insurance and homeowner’s insurance and totalled up all your premiums and all the payouts you’ve received over your lifetime? If you did, it would probably look like you paid a lot but didn’t get much in return. Some people who have had major catastrophes—an accident that totalled their car, a tree falling on their house—come out ahead, but people who haven’t had those things happen to them come out behind. If it wasn’t that way, every insurance company would lose money. But they don’t. They work very hard to set premiums to exceed the amount they spend in payouts (not to mention working hard not to pay out for things they ought to). But as Jonathan Chait says, “Insurance isn’t a kind of gamble where you bet you can beat the house by consuming more in medical care than you pay in premiums and deductibles. It’s protection from risk. People like that protection. They will pay to acquire it.” That applies not just to health insurance but to every kind of insurance. That’s why it’s called “insurance.” (The only exception is life insurance, which works more like an investment.)

The only people who come out ahead in dollars and cents on insurance are those people who have had terrible things happen to them. What the rest of us are buying, as any insurance salesman will tell you, is peace of mind.

To get back to the place we started, it can seem now that people are saying for the first time, “Wait a minute! Insurance is a raw deal! I mean, Obamacare is a raw deal!” And the media are doing their part by running stories that characterize the side effects of the private insurance market, like limited networks of doctors or the fact that less expensive plans have higher deductibles, as something new that’s occurring only because of the Affordable Care Act. But they aren’t. If you want to have a system of private health insurers, that’s how it has worked in the past, and that’s how it will continue to work. If you really want to be free of those problems, you’ll have to wait until you’re 65 and can join the big-government, socialist plan called Medicare.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, December 10, 2013

December 11, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Health Insurance Companies | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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