Corporate immunity in a pandemic; ALEC v. coronavirus
In any relationship with an inherent power dynamic, it is important to be able to hold each other accountable. This is true for corporations and their employees, and it is especially true in the extreme circumstances of a pandemic.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization where corporate lobbyists and legislators co-write model bills, works in direct opposition to the accountability ideal as it strives to protect corporations from COVID-19 related lawsuits.
The Republican Party (GOP) and ALEC have joined to create the Safe to Work Act, with the intent of limiting corporate liability in matters connected to the coronavirus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made it clear that the next stimulus bill would not be sent to the floor without protections against corporate liability. With the ensuing debate and the increasing likelihood of Congress stalling until after the upcoming election, the American people are left unprotected once again.
McConnell defends these actions by claiming corporate liability could further stunt our already struggling economy. He is striking undue fear in the public and diverting our focus from what matters most. Citizens in every state, including Connecticut, are vulnerable and they need the next coronavirus relief bill now. Ultimately, protecting large corporations should not be the focus of Congress and the GOP. We are in the midst of a pandemic. Congress should prioritize the needs of citizens who are struggling to pay rent, to say nothing of possible hospital bills. Tacking corporate liability onto the coronavirus relief bill was inappropriate at best.
The Safe to Work Act was introduced July 27 by Sen.John Cornyn (R-TX) with McConnell’s support. It is, using its own language, “a bill to lessen the burdens on interstate commerce by discouraging insubstantial lawsuits relating to COVID-19.” The wording, specifically the word “insubstantial,” discredits employees who may have valid reasons to file lawsuits. It is also eerily similar to the words exchanged in the creation of an ALEC model bill in May. According to Akela Lacy of the Intercept, ALEC’s Criminal and Civil Justice Task Force discussed protecting the legal system “from frivolous litigation that threatens its reliability” during a conference call on May 7. To imply that the fears of those working on the front lines of a pandemic are ‘frivolous’ is appalling and unfortunately indicative of who the GOP and ALEC value the most.
Not long after their conference call, ALEC held their annual meeting from July 15 to July 23 with an agenda full of coronavirus related measures. It is no surprise that the Safe to Work Act was introduced to the Senate within days of this meeting, nor that members of the Trump Administration and Koch Industries were in attendance.
ALEC is well known for protecting the financial interests of the corporate and conservative members who fund their operations. They first garnered national attention for their ties to Voter ID laws and Stand Your Ground laws, both exhibiting reckless far-right policy. Researchers Gary Anderson and Liliana Donchik further reveal that ALEC is classified as a 501(c)(3) non-profit and educational think tank in order to avoid taxes and the Freedom of Information Act. They used every conceivable loophole to avoid the proper designation of a lobbying organization.
To many, ALEC’s involvement in legislation is inevitable. They have a team of coordinators and experts working year-round and they can produce bills at a much faster rate than the typical legislative process. However, while we are all tired of a stalled Congress, its legislative process is far more transparent. Diem, Young and Sampson encourage the use of critical policy analysis to assess policy for its rhetoric, its roots and development, and its connections to the misuse of power. When applying critical policy analysis to the legislation put forth by ALEC, it is clear there is a disconnect between their statements and their intentions. They have always intended to protect corporate interests over working Americans, and they are not afraid to abuse their power to do so.
Despite the resources ALEC has invested into cultivating fear over the impending flood of litigation, there is no evidence supporting their claim. For example, Connecticut courts, like any other judicial system, were overwhelmed with the onset of the pandemic, but this was due only to a lacking infrastructure. As Ana Radelat explained in the CT Mirror, by August 20 there had only been 50 COVID related lawsuits filed in Connecticut, half of which were filed by businesses. Most are suing their insurers or various government agencies for not covering their losses amid coronavirus shutdowns. As much as Mitch McConnell and the GOP would have you believe, corporations are not the ones being sued, they are the ones suing. The liability protections the GOP are so intent on pushing are unnecessary.
The people are also being misled to believe that these corporate liability laws will protect healthcare workers. Theoretically this is true, though it is rarely the individual workers who are benefitting. Ultimately, ALEC’s allegiance is to money. They don’t care about healthcare workers; they care about the continued support of big businesses. The reality is many states, including Connecticut, have already issued executive orders protecting healthcare workers. Executive Order No. 7U enacted by Gov. Ned Lamont protects healthcare providers from civil liability and provides billing protections for patients. States have already taken action to protect both the businesses and citizens of their communities that are directly affected by the pandemic. If Congress was really concerned about healthcare workers, they could emulate Lamont’s executive order and focus their energy on protecting citizens rather than corporations.
Ideally, ALEC would be held accountable by the Freedom of Information Act and treated as the lobbying body it is. With ALEC’s power limited, corporate interests would not be so entangled with the legislative process and Congress could focus on substance in a time of crisis.
Be aware of who your representatives are and what their ties to ALEC may be. Demand better.
Sara Johnson is a sophomore at Trinity College and an intends to double major in Human Rights and Public Policy & Law.
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