Sleazy. Greedy. Outrageous. Deceptive. Corporate lackey. When Morley Safer interviewed Rick Berman for 60 Minutes in 2011, these are the accusations he led with. Berman is the lobbyist you go to when your behavior is so unpopular that no one else will take up your cause or accept your money. Nicknamed “Dr. Evil,” Berman has spoken on behalf of factory farming and industrial polluters, and against drunk-driving laws and the minimum wage.
And tomorrow he will be a speaker at the legislative conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing lobbying group. The speaking gig makes sense. Berman promotes oil and gas interests by digging into the private lives of environmentalists, while ALEC helps corporations draft anti-conservation laws and hands them over to willing politicians to enact.
The pairing of these corporate remoras shouldn’t surprise anyone, but you should still be concerned. It’s your future they’ll be discussing, and they don’t want you to hear what they’re saying. Moneyed interests are working harder than ever to influence politics and the national discourse on issues such as children’s health, the environment, and financial regulation, all from behind a veil of secrecy. Most of what we know about ALEC, and to a slightly lesser extent Berman, comes from leaked documents and recordings. Their corporate clients refuse to stand up and be counted in public.
Welcome to the era of leave-no-trace lobbying.
Over the summer Berman spoke to the Western Energy Alliance, a group of oil and gas representatives, in Colorado Springs. He talked about influencing public opinion without using facts, “screwing” with labor unions, and undermining Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Humane Society. He explained how he prevents progress on certain issues (climate change for one) by overloading the public with divergent opinions, essentially reinforcing the status quo by nurturing discord. (We know all this because a disgusted energy executive in attendance provided the New York Times with a recording of Berman’s speech.)
At the end of that talk, Berman addressed a question on the minds of many of the execs in the audience: “How do I know I won’t be found out as a supporter of what you’re doing?”
Berman is no fool. He may take pride in his smarmy, underhanded publicity stunts, but he recognizes that companies won’t be happy if their shareholders, customers, or mothers find out they’re selling out the environment and public health. Not to worry, Berman assured them. “We run all this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors,” he said. “There is total anonymity. People don’t know who supports us.” (The Center of Consumer Freedom is just one of the bogusly named nonprofits in Berman’s network.)
ALEC is even more committed to anonymity. In fact, the group—which charges corporations five-figure sums to join, then offers free membership to overworked and sometimes under-informed state legislators—is usually referred to as “secretive ALEC” or “shadowy ALEC.” (Read more about how the organization works here.)
The lobbyists and lawmakers convene at regular conferences. The meetings are closed off from public view, but we know that in the past participants have discussed “model” legislation to privatize pensions, rolling back renewable energy portfolio standards, and preventing a minimum wage increase. The conferences are essentially massive legislative sessions—except that lobbyists participate on equal footing with elected officials and, again, the public is kept in the dark.
The Guardian details what the group may have in store for us this week:
On the agenda for its environment and energy task force are draft bills that will seek to disband the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, expand offshore oil drilling, and weaken environmental protections for smog and other pollutants, as well as cut back protections for endangered species.
The top priority appears to be dissolving the main pillar of Obama’s climate action plan: new rules to limit carbon pollution from power plants now being rolled out by the EPA. Under the most extreme proposal, ALEC would urge Congress to gut the EPA entirely, cutting its environmental protection budget by 75 percent and delegating its powers to 300 state agency employees.
ALEC has also proposed two measures that would deter states from adopting EPA’s power plant rules.
When it’s all over, the legislators introduce the resulting bills to their statehouses, the drafts often left completely unchanged and with no indication that corporate lobbyists wrote them. According to Iowa state senator Thomas G. Courtney, who opposes ALEC, the corporate members then send checks to friendly legislators “to keep them coming back.” The New York Times has accused ALEC of effectively turning state lawmakers into “stealth lobbyists.”
The good news is that both Berman and ALEC have suffered setbacks in recent months. Berman has been on the defensive since October, when his Colorado Springs speech was made public, so he’s less likely to be so blunt when soliciting money from his corporate overlords at his talk tomorrow. And dozens of major corporations, like Google, Coca-Cola, and General Electric, have left the ALEC fold, in part because the group couldn’t keep its members secret and the bad publicity became intolerable.
A century ago, the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Well, secrecy has again become a festering wound on our democracy, and it’s time to shine a brighter light on the country’s Bermans and ALECs.
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