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Right Wing Lobbying Strategies in the States

 

Even as progressives are making major headway in this session on issues ranging from renewable energy to the minimum wage to voting reform, the corporate Right, led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its associated "research" front groups, is still out there in the states pushing their model bills and corporate-funded propaganda. 

This Dispatch will focus on a few of the issues the right wing are pushing and some of the tactics they've been using for everything from their attacks on supposed "voter fraud", trying to restrict health care for children, funding global warming "skeptics", and trying to undermine corporate accountability by state regulators. 

 

The Myth of Voter Fraud

 

For the last few years, ALEC and other right wing groups have been promoting lurid stories of supposed voter fraud to justify bills to make voting harder, especially restrictive voter identification laws.

In that context, the national revelations around the White House firings of federal prosecutors becomes quite revealing.  Apparently, a number of these Bush-appointed federal attorneys were fired because they refused to pursue bogus voter fraud prosecutions as demanded by the White House.   As Joseph Rich, head of the voting section of the Justice Department until 2005, wrote in Sunday's Los Angeles Times:

From 2001 to 2006, no voting discrimination cases were brought on behalf of African American or Native American voters. U.S. attorneys were told instead to give priority to voter fraud cases, which, when coupled with the strong support for voter ID laws, indicated an intent to depress voter turnout in minority and poor communities. At least two of the recently fired U.S. attorneys, John McKay in Seattle and David C. Iglesias in New Mexico, were targeted largely because they refused to prosecute voting fraud cases...

Aside from the issue of abuse of power in the Justice Department, it's worth emphasizing the point that even many Bush-appointed prosecutors couldn't justify pursuing non-existant voting fraud cases.  Despite this nationwide devotion of resources, there have been a miniscule number of indictments on voter fraud-- but the noise and fury around the investigations have been used to politically gin up support for state laws requriring voters to show photo ID or other voting restrictions.

A number of states are ignoring this propaganda and passing reforms like Election Day Registration or Vote-by-Mail to expand voting opportunities, but the damage has been done as every proponent of voting reform has had to debunk this myth of rampant voter fraud. 

 

Restricting Health Care for Kids

 

Many on the Right have been publicly complaining that states are being too aggressive in expanding health care opportunities for children in their states and have been campaigning to restrict help to only the poorest children.  As Edwin Feulner, President of the the right wing Heritage Foundation, wrote rececently, "Congress created the program to help poor children, not to give states another excuse to shower 'free' benefits on middle-class families." 

It would come as a shock to the families Mr. Feulner is talking about -- those making around $40,000 per year for a family of four -- that health care is even remotely affordable for them and that they don't need the help that state leaders have begun offering as private insurance costs zooms out of reach.

But sure enough, President Bush proposed cutting off SCHIP funding for state programs providing SCHIP help to any families above 200% of the poverty line.  And, bucking the trend of states expanding health care to children, the Georgia House voted last Tuesday to cut children's health care.  Voting largely along party lines, House Bill 340 would reduce eligibility for PeachCare, the state's Children Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), from families earning 235% of poverty to those earning 200% and eliminate dental and vision coverage.

Reflecting the disdain for families struggling to deal with health care costs, Speaker Glenn Richardson mocked concerns that the bill will increase the number of uninsured children in Georgia.  Wondering what children did before the SCHIP program started in 1997, Speaker Richardson sneared, "I bet they all died and there are no adults now in Georgia." 

With studies by the Institute of Medicine showing that 18,000 Americans die each year due to lack of health insurance, this kind of callousness is unbelievable but par for the course of right wing rhetoric on health care.  But even when no one dies, health care costs are bankrupting middle class families in every state across the country.  

Even families not in poverty are increasingly unable to afford private coverage, which is why so many states are looking to expand SCHIP and other federal/state programs to ensure access to health care.  Thankfully, the US Senate voted in the last few weeks on a budget resolution that includes $50 billlion for SCHIP over 5 years, twice what President Bush proposed, to ensure states don't have to restrict their health care programs.

But don't expect right wing rhetoric or actions like Georgia's to disappear any time soon.  The rightwing knows that creating universal health care programs are extremely popular with the public-- and they understand that using SCHIP to cover all kids in our states is a strong first step in that direction.   They prefer to restrict the program to the very poor, knowing that that makes the program politically vulnerable and easier to cut or kill altogether in the future.

 

Funding "Scientific" Skeptics of Global Warming

 

Along with ALEC, a key right wing front group in the states is the Heartland Institute, a corporate-funded research outfit that churns out white papers on demand for its industry bankrollers With Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth calling attention to the threat of global warming, the Heartland Institute and its clones in individual states have been trotting out paid flunkies to argue that global warming is not a serious threat.

And whose paying for this?  Well, the Union of Concerned Scientists found that ExxonMobil has contributed nearly 16 million dollars between 1998 and 2005 to a rightwing network of 43 advocacy groups to create their own echo chamber attacking global warming as a problem.  A 2005 Mother Jones study on ExxonMobil found a similar pattern of funding a range of groups to create the perception of multiple independent organizations skeptical of global warming.

An example of how this works was on display in Michigan in February.  On February 15, the Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a state think tank, brought Fred Smith, a founder of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a national think tank that mouths "free market" rhetoric while lobbying for whatever its industry funders deem most important.  The Competitive Enterprise Institute has been given more than $2 million by ExxonMobil, while the Acton Institute has received $160,000 from ExxonMobil

De facto, ExxonMobil was paying ExxonMobil to bring its own paid hacks to town-- but the multiple front groups are a neat trick to hide ExxonMobil's hand. 

 

Gutting State Regulatory Powers

 

It seems innocent enough.  A bill is proposed to create more "administrative accountability," making sure that government officials assure that the costs and benefits of a regulation are carefully weighed before implementing new policies.  Sounds good until you get to the fine print of an ALEC-backed bill like New Mexico's HB 685:

  • Employees blowing the whistle on illegal activity by employers could lose their anonymity.
  • Government inspectors would be prohibited from conducting surprise inspections.
  • Onerous deadlines and responsibilities are imposed on government officials-- with no additional staff. 
  • Under the law if these understaffed departments can't meet the imposed deadlines in the law, polluters and other corporate lawbreakers would receive a free pass.

ALEC has quietly been pushing versions of its model "Regulatory Flexibility Act" in states around the country in recent years.  For example, Alaska and Missouri adopted a version in 2005.  ALEC's lobbying has been backed as well by the Bush White House's Small Business Administration which has been pushing the concept as well.

But ALEC hasn't had as easy a ride in New Mexico, since community members there recognized the right wing lobbying pattern and reacted swiftly.   Groups like the League of Young Voters publicly identifed ALEC's role in pushing the bill as a strategy to fight it.

They even took to the airwaves with a hard-hitting (and funny) radio spot asking why the bill's sponsor, Rep. Dan Silva, was "pitching for the corporate team" and ALEC?  One local newspaper, the Santa Fe New Mexican, lauded the ads as "brutal" in their exposure of the corporate gamesmanship behind the bill:

[ALEC] churns out bills making mischief with state governments already shorthanded in their attempts to rein in environmental pillage, assaults on America's health and legal thievery from consumers. Silva's bill is the work of ALEC.

This is the kind of direct exposure of the rightwing agenda that progressives need to do more of.  We can argue these bills on their merits, but progressives also need to make clear who is paying the bills, in lobbying money and campaign contributions, and put the rightwing sponsors of these corporate bills on the defensive.  

 

Conclusion

 

Obviously, the right wing is pushing a whole range of issues, from school vouchers to anti-immigrant bills, but the examples above illustrate the kinds of right wing tactics progressives need to watch out for:

  • Coordination between federal officials and local right wing lobbying.
  • Rhetorical attacks on universal social programs in favor of programs restricted to the very poor-- thereby isolating them politically to ease their cutting later.
  • Corporate funded front groups to create an echo chamber of industry propaganda.
  • Innocuous sounding bills with nasty fine print that assaults the environment, workers and consumer rights.

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg of right wing strategies.  As we outlined in our report last year, Governing the Nation from the Statehouses: The Rightwing Agenda in the States and How Progressives Can Fight Back, rightwing corporate interests have been refining both tactics and strategic use of issues to promote their agenda for decades. 

However, progressive leaders are increasingly getting wise to their games and publicly identifying their misuse of astroturf front groups, bogus experts and disingenuous rhetoric.  Identifying their strategies doesn't neutralize the rightwing's financial advantages, but it does undercut their attempts to leverage extra media attention by framing their position in the media as based in "independent" expertise or the public interest