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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A leak of documents has given journalists the opportunity to scrutinize an organization that has intentionally kept a low profile. That organization, ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, brings state lawmakers together with representatives of major corporations to draft model legislation.

Those model bills, or variations on them, are often introduced into state legislatures and go on to become laws.

Although ALEC enables corporations to influence legislation, it's not defined as a lobby group and has nonprofit status. That nonprofit status is now being challenged by the group Common Cause.

More than 800 of ALEC's model bills were leaked to the Center for Media and Democracy. They set up a website called ALEC Exposed. My guest, John Nichols, has been reading the ALEC documents and writing about them for The Nation magazine, where he's a political writer.

John Nichols, welcome to FRESH AIR. From what you've learned, is it fair to say that the main goal of ALEC is to draft model legislation?

Mr. JOHN NICHOLS (The Nation): Well, I think it's a much more ambitious goal than that. They certainly do draft model legislation, as well as resolutions, which outline sort of an ideology, an approach to state government.

But all of those pieces of legislation and those resolutions really err toward a goal, and that goal is the advancement of an agenda that seems to be dictated at almost every turn by multinational corporations.

GROSS: What would you say that agenda is?

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, I think it's to make it easier for corporations to do what they want to do, and not all those things are evil, although sometimes folks talk about corporations that way. But it's just to clear the way - lower taxes, less regulation, particularly less environmental regulation, a lot of protections against lawsuits. ALEC is very, very active in what's referred to as tort reform. And also an opening up of areas via privatization for corporations to make more money, particularly in places you might not usually expect, like public education.

AlEC is a very, very strong advocate for voucher programs and privatization programs in the area of education.

GROSS: And privatization of prisons as well?

Mr. NICHOLS: Oh, very ambitiously for privatization of prisons. And there's a group called the Corrections Corporation of America that's very, very active with ALEC, and they build prisons.

GROSS: So the focus of ALEC is legislation on the state level, not the national level. Most of us, I think, are more focused on national legislation. Why is ALEC focused on the state level?

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, because they're smart. The fact of the matter is that we live at the local and state level. That's where human beings come into contact with government more often than not.

You know, we live today, in America, in a country where there's a Washington obsession, particularly by the media, but also by a lot of the political class. It's all about what happens in Washington.

And yet, in most areas it's not Washington that dictates the outlines, the parameters of our life. It's state and local government that has the biggest hand in public education, in infrastructure, in transportation, in, you know, everything down to running police and fire departments and regulating them.

And so if you come at the state government level, you have a much greater ability to define how you're going to operate. And remember, the United States was set up by the founders, I think rather ingeniously, as a network of 50 states. And these states have very different laws, very different approaches.

If you can create a national overlay on all 50 of those states that is very favorable toward your ideology or toward your business, it's going to be very advantageous to you. So there's a great wisdom in going at the states.

GROSS: If you look at the states, what's the balance in America between Republican and Democratic legislators?

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, it's very much toward the Republicans right now, and the Republicans have had, particularly in the last election cycle, just an incredibly successful run. They picked up roughly 680 seats in state houses and state senate chambers in the 2010 election. That was the biggest pickup that they had had since 1966, which was a great year for them.

They now hold more state legislative seats than at any time since 1928, the year that Herbert Hoover came to the presidency. They control 25 states, both houses of the legislature. There are also 21 states where Republicans control both houses of the legislature and the governorship.

That's referred as trifecta control, and in the kind of backrooms of politics, that's what people really want. If you've got governor, state house and state senate, you can pretty much roll through whatever legislation you want.

GROSS: So when ALEC, which is again an acronym for the American Legislative Exchange Council, when ALEC helps draft model legislation, how does it - what is the process that it uses?

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, it's a very interesting process. ALEC is a membership group, and it's not a lobby, it doesn't operate as a lobby. It operates as a membership group. Legislators become members, and corporations become members.

Legislators pay about 50 bucks. It's sometimes even paid by their state government as membership dues under the, you know, standard operating procedures there. And so they're all in it. There's about 2,000 legislators who are members of ALEC from around the country.

Corporations pay a much higher amount, 7,000 up to 25,000 dollars to be members. But once you're in, they sit at the same table. And so on the board of ALEC, the oversight board, you have an equal number of legislators and corporate representatives or representatives of sometimes corporate foundations, conservative foundations, that have paid this large amount to be there.

And then you pay fees as well to be on a task force directly with the legislatures - legislators shaping model legislation. These task forces deal with issues such as health care, education, election law, and you have an equal number of legislators on each task force and corporate and/or interested think tanks, foundations, groupings. They have to agree on any model bill or any model resolution.

What that means is that while it's referred to as the American Legislative Exchange Council, it actually has a situation where corporations, particularly in areas where they have a high level of interest, such as tort law or health care, are able to veto a proposal or veto an idea that isn't to their liking.

So it's really much more than the American Legislative Exchange Council. It's really the American Legislative and Corporation Exchange Council. In fact, about two percent of ALEC's funding comes from dues paid by legislators. The rest comes from corporate sources and other sources, foundations and that.

GROSS: So in what sense do corporations have a veto?

Mr. NICHOLS: They've got - there's an equal number of members. And so if all the corporate members of a task force say we don't want to go with that bill, we don't - that would regulate us too much, the legislators cannot make it a model bill.

And there's a significant part here too. I don't want to paint the picture that the corporations are coming in and forcing these legislators to do things. Most of the legislators are very conservative. They're very sympathetic to a lot of what the corporations or conservative foundations, conservative think-tanks are advocating.

But what's significant here is that when you sit at that table - if you understand how legislatures operate around the country, they are made up often of folks who come out of their communities.

I mean, we really do have, you know, it's kind of an old-school representative democracy. And so they don't have a lot of experience quite frequently in technical areas of telecommunications or health care delivery or education. And so they come to these tables in Washington or in some very fancy hotel on some island, and the corporate representatives say, well, here's a good idea.

And more often than not, it appears when you look through all the documents, that the legislators say: that's cool, let's make that our model legislation. And then that legislation or some variation on it then goes back into the states, carried by the legislators.

GROSS: From what I understand, ALEC likes to bring into its membership new state legislators. And I think it must be very hard for new legislators to kind of get a lay of the land and of all the complicated bills that they have to comprehend.

But also I think in some states, being a state legislator is a part-time job. Is that right?

Mr. NICHOLS: It's a very part-time job in some states. You know, and sometimes it only pays 100 bucks a year.

GROSS: So is it in that sense perhaps very helpful to new legislators to have a group like ALEC, you know, whether people would see it as a good thing or a bad thing in the long run, for a new legislator who is kind of like-minded with the agenda of ALEC, is it very helpful to have, you know, an infrastructure like that?

Mr. NICHOLS: I would say it's too helpful, and that's the distinction I would make. It can be helpful to exchange ideas. I think that's a terrific thing, and to exchange ideas across state lines is certainly commendable.

But to have new legislators come in and defer to a national grouping that gives them, you know, a set of suggestions on how to think about every issue is to my mind not the way to go.

Historically, our states have been very, very different places. There is a difference between Maine and Mississippi. There is a difference between North Dakota and New York. And I think when legislators come in in their first term, and if they're working with other legislators from the state, maybe a few people from other states, but basically rooted in their place, they maintain, I think, a continuity that can be very healthy and really keep some of the diversity of ideas, the diversity of approaches that I think makes America great.

When you are instantaneously flying off to Washington or to New Orleans, where they're going to meet in August, to sit down with a bunch of very powerful national folks who have been involved in these issues for a long time, I think it actually deadens out creative thinking instead of, you know, coming in and saying, wow, I really want to change this place.

Instead, you get a, you know, a playbook that tells you what folks have been working on for a long time. So to my mind, it's not a particularly healthy thing for a new legislator. But of course the folks from ALEC -and I will be blunt with you, the folks from some organizations on the left - would say oh no, no, no, we want to have that influence. We want to, you know, really create a continuity across the U.S.

I like our diversity. I prefer our states to be different. I prefer them to have different approaches because I agree with Louis Brandeis. He used to refer to the states as laboratories of democracy, and I think that's a great notion, that states will be doing very different things, and then the best ideas would rise not because they are promoted by a particular group but on their merits, on their value.

That historically has been the great contribution of the states, and I don't think that one-size-fits-all solutions really go well with the laboratory of democracy.

GROSS: My guest is John Nichols, a political writer for The Nation magazine. We'll talk more about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and what the leaked ALEC documents reveal after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: We're talking about the group ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. The group brings together corporations and state lawmakers who collaborate on writing model bills that can be introduced to state legislatures.

More than 800 of those model bills were recently leaked to the Center for Media and Democracy. My guest, John Nichols, is a political writer for The Nation and has been reading and analyzing the leaked documents.

Can you list some of the legislation passed this year that you think really comes out of ALEC, out of the model legislation?

Mr. NICHOLS: I think there's a group of areas where ALEC has been very, very active this year, and that you've seen it across the country in a flood of legislation on tort reform, making it harder to sue corporations and powerful institutions; on limiting the taxing ability of states, particularly a whole host of corporate tax breaks, changes in what is expected of corporations.

There's been a huge amount of legislation that has come down in states across the country on privatization of schools and of other government services, particularly requiring local governments to contract out rather than to use their own employees.

There's a host of legislation in areas like prevailing wage and labor law, what's called paycheck protection, i.e., taking away the dues check-off for unions. So a lot of legislation that we've seen in states across the country that's been very, very controversial, the great demonstrations you've seen in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, to a lesser extent Maine, around legislation of this kind.

And then there's also been a lot of movement on the area of voter ID, 33 states looking at voter ID legislation that requires a lot more jumping through hoops before you can cast a ballot. And ALEC has been in the forefront of writing model legislation on voter ID bills.

GROSS: So if you were took at legislation that was introduced in several states and compare the wording of the bills on, say, tort reform, which is an issue that's big on the ALEC list of priorities, would the wording be the same? Would the wording be very similar to that model legislation that came out of ALEC?

Mr. NICHOLS: Absolutely. You're going to find immense amounts of similarity. In fact, one of the wonderful things about doing this story is that as it - after it appeared, a lot of journalists around the country read it, and they went into the Center for Media and Democracy's ALEC Exposed website, looked at model legislation and then in their home states started looking at bills that have been passed.

And just the other day, in Tennessee, a paper found a bill where basically the second half of it was verbatim from the ALEC model bill. Now, that's not always the case. The legislation will have variations on a theme. It won't always be verbatim. But the core concepts are there.

And so you will see in a voter ID bill, for instance, specific references to what type of ID is acceptable, what type is not. In legislation and initiatives as regards public financing of campaigns, which ALEC is very, very opposed to, you'll find, again, the same set of references.

GROSS: Are there bills in your state, Wisconsin, that seem to be variations on model legislation that came out of ALEC?

Mr. NICHOLS: Definitely. I think there's no question of that. And I've watched the Wisconsin legislature for many years. Wisconsin's been a favorite state of ALEC for a long time, and there are a lot of Wisconsin legislators who have gone through ALEC.

In fact, our governor, Scott Walker, is an ALEC alumni. So too are 10 other current Republican governors, that's - they were in ALEC when they were legislators.

In addition, the majority leader of the state Senate is a former ALEC chair. The chairman of the Joint Finance Committee is the current ALEC chair. So there's a lot of physical presence there.

But to give you an example, just this week, the governor signed a - kind of a remarkable bill. It reverses early release. It says that all of the structures...

GROSS: Of prisoners.

Mr. NICHOLS: Right, to - all the structures that have been put in place to make it easy for a prisoner who's had good behavior, served a good deal of time, to get out. And that's generally a pretty popular idea, especially in a time of tight budgets. You don't want to pack the prisons. You want to get them out if they're not a threat.

We reversed all of our early release laws, really shot them down, and the interesting thing is that the person who sponsored that bill, state assembly majority leader Scott Souter(ph), is a long-time member of ALEC, and he is currently on the ALEC task force that deals with public safety and prison issues.

And so if you look at that task force, and there are proposals on, you know, changing laws, they're just very, very similar to what popped up here in Wisconsin.

GROSS: So one way of reading that would be that members of ALEC who represent private prisons have a vested interest in keeping prisoners in prison longer, it's more money. Is that...

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, or in having a prison crowding situation that might demand the building of more prisons.

GROSS: I see.

Mr. NICHOLS: Now, let's be clear here, that there are honest players who believe that everybody who gets convicted of a crime ought to serve every second that they are sentenced to, and I recognize that. But the interesting thing is at a time when many thoughtful national conservatives are stepping up and saying we've got a problem here; there are very conservative players who working with the NAACP saying, look, we need to get people out of the prisons. We've got too many people in them, it's not working, it's not a good approach. To have states suddenly say no, no, no, that's not where we're going, we're going a different direction altogether, we're going to get rid of early release and create a situation where our prisons are going to get more crowded, that seems to me to be one of those places where as a reporter, my kind of red flag goes up.

I say that doesn't make sense. It strikes me that there's got to be somebody here who wants something from this. There's got to be some benefit that comes to somebody by going against what seems to be the logic of the moment, which is we can't have such crowded prisons when our budgets are so strained.

And I think that that, as you suggest, is one very viable answer to the question, that there are interested parties that frankly just want more prisons.

GROSS: Is there a liberal counterpart to ALEC?

Mr. NICHOLS: No, there's no real liberal counterpart to ALEC. There is the Progressives States Network, that tries to do some of this work. There's some great small groupings in areas like the environment, where they bring together legislators from different areas. But there's nothing equivalent either in size or scope on the left to what ALEC does on the right.

GROSS: Now, you say ALEC is known for its refusal to compromise. What do you mean?

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, I mean this is part and parcel of what we're seeing across the political life right now. Back in the 1970s, early 1970s, a number of new organizations, think-tanks, membership groups, political operations, were started by true-believer conservatives, really passionate conservatives, as well as some libertarian folks and a lot of corporate folks who were very frustrated by the Nixon presidency.

Richard Nixon, elected as a Republican, quite hated by a lot of Democrats, went out and created the Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, expanded public housing, was relatively sympathetic to a lot of unions. And they were thinking, you know, this just doesn't work.

This is - here we elect Republicans and we still end up getting, you know, policies that don't favor what we want. And so ALEC, like a lot of these other groups, has worked for a very long time to get political players trained up, raised up, get ideas into the mix that are very pure, that are not about compromise but that are about, you know, winning the game, winning the whole thing.

And I think that's one of the reasons why ALEC is not just interested in corporate regulation, tax policy, but also very, very interested in election law and election policies.

I mean, this is a group that has, I think it's safe to say, a broad vision for how they want the states to operate, and frankly how they would hope that their members and their allies would continue to be the dominant players at the state level for generations to come.

GROSS: John Nichols will talk more about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, in the second half of the show. He's a political writer for The Nation magazine. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're talking about what recently leaked documents reveal about the group ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. The group brings together state lawmakers with representatives of major corporations to collaborate on writing model bills that can be introduced into state legislatures. The documents were leaked to the Center for Media and Democracy. My guest John Nichols has been studying and writing about these documents for The Nation magazine where he's a political writer.

Can you give us a sense of what was in that leak?

Mr. NICHOLS: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, like the size, the number of documents, the span of what they represented?

Mr. NICHOLS: Okay. I will just say that my eyes are still blurry.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. NICHOLS: You know, what happened was - it was a really interesting, it's a good story and it's a good classic old-school journalism story. ALEC really came into the news this year because legislators around the country were starting to notice that a lot of ALEC priority seemed to be rising to the top very quickly, and some Democratic legislators were complaining about it, some unions who were particularly objecting it.

And so when ALEC had its spring conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, there were a group of union folks, activist folks who protested outside of it. And amusingly enough, one of the leaders of those protests got a call or got a contact from somebody who said look, I'm a ALEC member, but I'm real frustrated, I'm real unsettled by a lot that's going on and I want to give you all this information. And this woman said well, you know, okay. That's cool.

Well, what it turned out to be was all the information, a massive amount of documents: model resolutions, model bills, all of the details of who leads taskforces, who serves on taskforces, all of the details of their state chairs and, you know, who the alumni are and it's a massive amount of information. Lots of names. And, you know, journalists always like names. But also, lots of details where you really do get an ideological vision.

I focus - my interest is in elections. I'm always fascinated by, you know, how our elections play out, how our politics plays out, how democracy itself functions. And so I looked through all the documents, at least everything that was in this document dump on elections and on democracy and on everything from the Electoral College to how we do local initiatives. And frankly, it's amazing. There is just such meticulous work. They are very detail-oriented, very, very focused on a whole host of issues and they have an opinion about everything. And, you know, what they - how they want elections to work.

Money should speak. No question of that. They think it's a big deal. They love the Electoral College. They think it's a very, very dangerous notion to have direct election of presidents. They even say at one point that if you had direct election of the presidents you might create a situation in which someone with a plurality was elected. So what they're saying is you might create a situation where the person with the most votes got elected.

But what's so interesting about the ALEC exposed archive is that in many ways it is a broad outline of all the policy debates at the state level. And because so many people from ALEC have gone to the federal level, folks like Speaker John Boehner and Eric Cantor and a lot of other key congressional players, many of the presidential candidates, folks like Michele Bachmann, because of that overlay, you really see it not just as an outline for what's happening in the states, but in many ways an outline for a lot of the contemporary debates about how we do fiscal policy, how we envision government. How we envision democracy itself.

GROSS: ALEC is obviously trying to influence legislation by creating model bills. It does not consider itself a lobby group and it has nonprofit status. Right now Common Cause is trying to challenge that nonprofit status and they're saying that ALEC has no right to evade disclosure laws and to receive tax breaks. Can you describe this controversy over whether or not ALEC should be defined as a nonprofit or as a lobbying group?

Mr. NICHOLS: We use the word lobbying in the broad sense. It's the way that people casually talk about it. When you lobby you pressure, you push, you try to pass something. But lobbying is actually pretty carefully defined in both federal and state policy and it involves, you know, a certain set of actions taken by individuals to try and specifically influence passage of legislation.

And ALEC has worked around that by being a membership organization which argues that none of these corporate folks aren't lobbyists. They aren't going up to a state capitol and buttonholing legislators and saying pass something.

What they do is they sit down at the table as fellow members of an organization - perhaps, like members of a church or members of a country club - and talk about stuff. And they've kind of pushed for this very vague definition of that relationship.

And the argument that Common Cause has made is that this is lobbying in everything but name and maybe even in name, in reality. And so they have asked the IRS to take a serious look at ALEC's charitable definition, to say can you really define this as a not-for-profit group to which corporations can make contributions and deduct them. And, you know, can operate in this sphere or shouldn't it operate in a much more public and much more transparent sphere.

And I think that's a very significant ask, because in the United States if we have an organization that is having a profound influence on how our state governments operate, shouldn't we know who's involved, who is putting what money in, how they're operating? Shouldn't you just have a relatively high level of transparency? That is not an ideological assault. That certainly allows ALEC to continue to operate on the lines that it wants to operate, to advocate for what it wants to advocate for, to be very, very strong, very passionate in its ideals and its purposes, but simply to let the voters and other legislators know where these ideas are coming from and perhaps and then to form their own conclusions.

GROSS: One of the things that lobby groups do is give money to political campaigns. And then there's always the question of like are you buying the politician by helping fund their campaign. ALEC does not do that. They do not give direct money to campaigns or to politicians.

Mr. NICHOLS: They absolutely do not. And I think they're very, very careful to avoid that. And I want to, you know, I'm pretty critical of ALEC in a lot of fronts but I want to be very defending of this in this regard. I don't see a model where ALEC in any way has set itself up as a conduit or as a source of money for candidates. But what it does do is put sitting legislators, particularly legislative leaders, in the same room with representatives of corporations that have a profound interest in whether certain legislation is passed, whether it is not passed.

This becomes significant, I think especially in what we now refer to as the Citizens United era - the era in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court decision saying that corporations can spend out of their treasuries quite freely on campaigns. Now you have a situation within ALEC where legislators meeting up with these corporate folks, sharing interests, sharing values, and potentially becoming very, very useful to those corporations as advocate for tort law reform, for a host of other regulatory reforms, environmental changes, things of that nature, might, you know, know who to call once they've left the meeting room and completely outside of the orbit of ALEC if they wanted a campaign contribution.

And I think, you know, if we're honest with ourselves, this is how an awfully lot of politics works. Politicians like to be put in the same space with folks who have the ability to give money. The truth of the matter is Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, like to be around people who can write campaign contribution checks or, in the Citizens United era, who can do independent expenditures on behalf of those politicians or those candidates.

GROSS: Now the Koch brothers are among the major funders of ALEC. And one of the Koch brothers has also been a major contributor to the Tea Party. Is there a connection between the Tea Party and ALEC?

Mr. NICHOLS: I think that that's one of those places where you're going to certainly see a lot of the same funding, a lot of the same people and a lot of the same ideals, a lot of the same values. ALEC really is about getting rid of a lot of big government and moving toward a very different vision of how we organize the public sphere, and that's something a lot of Tea Party folks are sympathetic to.

But I would be cautious about saying that there is a pure Tea Party-ALEC connection and I'll tell you why. I doubt that 99 percent of sincere Tea Party activists have ever heard of ALEC until perhaps this week. And also I think this gets to really one of the more complicated and interesting aspects of the Tea Party. It's not one movement. It's not one simplistic movement.

In talking to Tea Party activists, going to their rallies, being with them, one of the things that has powerfully struck me is that they are very, very troubled by the government. But many of them are also very troubled by big influence, big power of any kind including corporate power. And so I would suggest to you that there are undoubtedly quite a few Tea Party folks who would be very ill at ease with the notion that large corporations are defining the conservative agenda, and again, perhaps defining it in a way that doesn't really fit with the most pure Tea Party ideals.

To give you a classic example, a lot of Tea Party folks are very uncomfortable with free trade. They don't like the idea of opening up the borders and having, you know, very open trade with other countries. And yet ALEC is passionately, passionately in favor of free trade. So I think there are divisions.

GROSS: Your most recent book, "The Death and Life of American Journalism," has just been published in paperback. And you were telling me before the interview that you see a direct connection between some of the issues you raise in that book and ALEC, what you've been writing about now. What's the connection?

Mr. NICHOLS: I think there's a huge connection. When I was a kid coming up in journalism a long time ago, if you walked into a statehouse newsroom it was packed. Every, even medium-size paper in the state sent reporters up. Radio stations did, TV stations, and state government was really closely covered. Today, the National Conference of State Legislators and other groups will tell you that one of the biggest crises at the state level is that the state government is operating in the dark.

So many newspapers, and so many radio stations especially, have laid off their statehouse reporters that you have states around the country which often have very few if any reporters covering major activities of the state. I think that's opened up the way for a lot of interest groups to step in and become the sources of information not just for the people but for legislators themselves. And I do believe that as we see a depth of statehouse journalism or at least a decaying of statehouse journalism we see a real rise in the ability of interest groups of all kinds, especially a group that's so well organized as ALEC, to influence the process.

GROSS: Well, John Nichols, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. NICHOLS: Thank you.

GROSS: John Nichols is a political writer for The Nation magazine.

Coming up, we'll hear from the national chairman of ALEC, Noble Ellington.

You'll find links to The Nation's coverage of ALEC, the Center for Media and Democracy's website, ALEC exposed, and the ALEC website on our website, freshair.npr.org.

This is FRESH AIR.

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