A Democratic congressman is attempting to tie the standoff over publicly owned lands in Nevada to a conservative policy group long reviled by the left in what the group says is a baseless and politically motivated attack.
The attack comes as Democratic members of Congress are increasingly seeking to tie Republican legislative proposals to nonprofit groups that the left dislikes, and to limit those groups’ abilities to affect or speak about public policy.
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Rep. Raul Grijalva (D., Ariz.), ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, took aim on Wednesday at American Legislative Exchange Council.
ALEC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that, in conjunction with its state legislator and private sector members, crafts model legislation that generally takes a pro-market, federalist approach to public policy.
Federal ownership of public lands is an issue on which ALEC members frequently work. A number of model bills posted on the group’s website seek to transfer authority over much of those lands from the federal government to the states.
Grijalva claimed in a Wednesday letter to the Interior Department’s inspector general that that work may be fueling "anti-government" extremism, as exemplified by Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher involved in a recent standoff with Bureau of Land Management authorities over unpaid grazing fees on his ranch, which sits on federal land.
BLM began seizing Bundy’s cattle after he refused to pay those fees. He insisted, in defiance of a federal court, that the federal government had no legal claim on those lands.
Grijalva equated Bundy’s position with the proposal of legislation to transfer some authority over public lands to state governments.
"The consequences of ALEC's positions are severe and deserving of careful scrutiny," Grijalva wrote. "They are entirely consistent with the position taken by anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy and his armed supporters."
ALEC says it simply feels that federal taxpayers are unnecessarily footing the bill for $8 billion in annual upkeep for federally owned land. Grijalva himself has criticized BLM for the exorbitant cost of maintaining wildlife on those lands.
He also made a more serious charge, claiming that ALEC has illegally lobbied for legislation at the state level in violation of its nonprofit tax status.
"It’s a baseless claim that’s not substantiated by any evidence or any information," Bill Meierling, ALEC’s senior director of public affairs, said in an interview.
ALEC’s status as a membership organization, Meierling explained, allows it to discuss policy issues with legislators in the context of their membership. But contrary to claims by its critics, ALEC’s members, not the group itself, initiate discussion of public policy issues.
Those internal discussions, large portions of which are publicly available on the group’s website, involve "legislators speaking to each other, or ALEC speaking to its members about issues on which it already has model policy," Meierling said.
As for Bundy Ranch, Meierling said the group had no involvement in the dispute and had taken no position on it.
The group’s position on federal land issues is driven by its underlying ideological bias towards federalism.
"Our perspective, from a federalism perspective, is identifying the appropriate balance of power" between federal and state governments, he explained.
"This six page letter is political theater at its best, and is basically creating an ALEC strawman to continue to try to further the conspiracy that we’re involved in things we’re not involved in," Meierling said.
The letter is just the latest attempt by congressional Democrats to blame ALEC for events that have grabbed national attention. The last attempt involved the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) last year attempted to tie ALEC to the shooting by noting that it had devised model legislation to impose "stand your ground" laws.
Durbin did not mention that George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Martin, did not invoke Florida’s "stand your ground" law in his defense, or that the law was passed by the state’s legislature before ALEC devised its model legislation.
Grijalva’s letter comes as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) attempts to delegitimize political groups supported by libertarian philanthropists Charles and David Koch.
Like ALEC, those groups allege that Reid is not motivated by any sincere desire to cleanse the political system or root out corrupt actors, but simply to "silence and intimidate" the Democratic Party’s critics, as Americans for Prosperity president Tim Phillips put it.
"We are going to keep doing this. We're not going to be intimidated," Phillips said of the group’s work in highlighting the stories of Americans who have been adversely affected by Obamacare.
ALEC also plans to remain engaged in the public forum. Grijalva did not reach out to the group prior to sending his letter, but Meierling said ALEC is happy to discuss the issues raised in his letter.
"We probably will reach out to Rep. Grijalva because we’ve got nothing to hide and we’re always happy to engage, and we may reach out to the IG’s office as well," he said.