By Brendan Fischer on September 12, 2012

Three right-wing organizations founded nearly forty years ago by conservative activist Paul Weyrich are rediscovering their shared origins. The Republican Study Committee, a caucus of 169 right-wing Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, is establishing a partnership with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the controversial "corporate bill mill" for state legislators, and their first meeting is scheduled at the Heritage Foundation headquarters. Each of those three organizations -- the RSC, ALEC, and the Heritage Foundation -- were founded in 1973 by Weyrich. (Weyrich passed away in 2008.)

"With the Internal Revenue Service reviewing ALEC's long history of tax fraud, and with major corporations like General Electric, General Motors and Coca-Cola heading for the exits, it's mind-boggling to see the Republican Study Committee (RSC) and its 169 members looking to establish even informal ties to ALEC," Common Cause President Bob Edgar said in a statement.

Next week's meeting, which Roll Call reports will include at least six federal and 18 state lawmakers, is perhaps less surprising given the shared history between ALEC and the RSC.

ALEC, RSC, Heritage Share Origins

ALEC has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months as the public has become aware of its role in advancing the "Stand Your Ground" law initially cited to protect Trayvon Martin's killer, as well as voter suppression bills, anti-environmental and union-busting policies, and other controversial legislation. Amidst these controversies, at least thirty-eight corporate members have cut ties to ALEC and seventy state legislators have dropped their ALEC membership.

Though few Americans were aware of ALEC until recently, it was founded nearly forty years ago.

Some have traced the organization's roots to the 1971 "Powell Memo," a letter from soon-to-be U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell to the director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce mapping out a game plan for corporations to counter what he called a "frontal assault" on the free enterprise system from individuals like Ralph Nader and the environmental movement. "Business must learn the lesson ... that political power is necessary," Powell wrote, and "that such power must be assidously [sic] cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination."

Many have credited the memo as inspiring the founding of right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation in 1973, but few have noted that Weyrich co-founded ALEC and the RSC that same year -- just two years after the Powell Memo was issued. Weyrich would go on to found the Free Congress Foundation the following year and in 1977 he co-founded the Moral Majority with Jerry Falwell.

"Next to Ronald Reagan, no single person has achieved more to advance the cause of American conservatism than Paul Weyrich," conservative activist Morton Blackwell wrote in 2008.

When Weyrich died in 2008, then-RSC Chair Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) issued a statement saying, "The Heritage Foundation, which he co-founded, is an intellectual home for all conservatives. And without Paul, the Republican Study Committee, which he worked to create, would not exist today. His ideas and principles will be carried on by not just the Republican Study Committee and the Heritage foundation, but by conservatives across the country that rely on the institutions which Paul worked to establish."

Weyrich famously observed that with regard to the conservative movement "our leverage in the elections goes up as the voting populace goes down." Today, ALEC and the GOP are pursuing his vision with a voter suppression agenda that includes strict voter identification bills introduced in 37 states across the nation since 2011, purportedly to crack down on phantom "voter fraud."

Not the First Time ALEC has Worked on Federal Level

Though ALEC has always been focused on state-level policy, its latest collaboration with the RSC is not the first time it has worked with federal lawmakers.

ALEC boasts on its website that in 1981, President Ronald Reagan formed a national Task Force on Federalism, which included ALEC's then-National Chairman Tom Stivers of Idaho, and "would come to rely heavily upon members of ALEC for expert testimony." According to ALEC's history, ALEC members like "State Senator [now Governor] John Kasich of Ohio and Senate President Robert Monier of New Hampshire regularly met in front of the committee." ALEC also claims that it "worked directly with the administration on policy development issues."

In 2005, ALEC established a "Federal Forum" program to build a "working relationship among current and former ALEC members at all levels of government," but it is not clear how long that program lasted.

More recently, ALEC-inspired environmental legislation has appeared in the U.S. House of Representatives with help from House Majority Speaker Eric Cantor, an ALEC alumni. Currently, at least 88 ALEC alumni are in the U.S. House of Representatives, including Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), as well as RSC Chair Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH). Nine U.S. Senators are former ALEC members, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC).

Meetings May Raise Legal Issues

Regardless of what comes from the reunification of RSC, ALEC, and the Heritage Foundation, the meetings may raise other concerns.

As a charity organized under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, lobbying is not supposed to be a "substantial part" of ALEC's overall activities. Common Cause and former IRS official Marcus Owens have filed IRS complaints alleging that ALEC is violating its charitable status by engaging in substantial lobbying through the promotion and development of model legislation. (A third complaint was filed by the Voters Legislative Transparency Project in August). Rather than arguing that lobbying is an insubstantial part of its activities, ALEC has told the IRS for years that it engages in "zero" lobbying. But meeting directly with members of Congress cannot be construed as anything but lobbying, said Joe Birkenstock, a lawyer at the DC firm Caplin & Drysdale who advises clients on Congressional ethics. "To the extent that ALEC officials themselves are at this event, they are having lobbying contacts," he told Roll Call. "It seems to me that it's probably a slam-dunk."


This article has been updated.

Brendan Fischer

Brendan Fischer is CMD's General Counsel. He graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin Law School.