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Strassel: Driving Dick Durbin

November 14, 2014

(From The Wall Street Journal)


Kimberley Strassel

You don’t come to be the No. 2 Senate Democrat without proving you can help your friends along the way. That’s why the motivation behind Dick Durbin’s ongoing campaign against a prominent free-market group deserves attention.

This week, the Illinois Democrat held his long-awaited hearing on state “stand your ground” laws, with the putative goal of blaming them for gun violence and racial discrimination.Trayvon Martin‘s mother testified at the packed hearing, and Sen. Durbin proclaimed against the laws.

However, “stand your ground” is but a pretense. Mr. Durbin’s real target is the American Legislative Exchange Council, the center-right group that has had remarkable success at writing “model” reform laws on a variety of issues that have been adopted in state legislatures. ALEC concentrates primarily on economic reforms, but at one point it had a model proposal for stand-your-ground laws.

Mr. Durbin has seized on this with his usual brass-knuckle flair, using Trayvon Martin’s death to try to embarrass corporations out of funding ALEC. In August, he sent a letter to hundreds of organizations, demanding that they divulge their position on “stand your ground” and to fess up to giving money to ALEC.

The Durbin letter inspired a hoopla, not the least because it smacked of a repeat of the IRS witch hunt against conservative nonprofits (a witch hunt Mr. Durbin helped inspire with a letter to the IRS in 2010).

Following his ALEC letter, Mr. Durbin’s hometown Chicago Tribune wrote an editorial entitled “Durbin’s enemies list,” skewering the senator for using his position of power to funnel “public outrage” on corporate donors. Blowback also came from letter recipients. AT&T Senior Vice President James Cicconi wrote to Mr. Durbin that his company contributes to groups that “span the political spectrum,” arguing that the senator’s tactics risk “weakening the political processes and institutions on which our democracy depends.” The Goldwater Institute publicly posted its own response, refusing to state which groups it funds and adding: “in the wake of the IRS intimidation and harassment of conservative organizations, your inquisition is an outrage.”

Despite all of the ink over Mr. Durbin’s tactics, few have stopped to question his motivation. After all, the senator’s disdain for ALEC preceded the “stand your ground” fight. No one on the left much likes ALEC, but the senator’s determination to dismantle the group is striking. Why?

The answer is that ALEC’s biggest reform successes have cut at the heart of Mr. Durbin’s political base. Democrats pull much of their money from lawyers and law firms, but Mr. Durbin is among the most favored—and the legal profession is his biggest industry contributor. Over his political career, according to, he’s been showered with more than $4.3 million in campaign contributions from the trial bar. Only a handful of Senate Democrats can claim such huge numbers, and they include Majority Leader Harry Reid and New York power broker Chuck Schumer.

In short, Mr. Durbin owes his career to a special interest that counts ALEC among its greatest threats. The free-market group has produced model reforms on medical malpractice, class actions, damages, forum shopping and expert testimony, to name a few.

While ALEC doesn’t lobby for its model legislation, versions of its proposals have been enacted in dozens of states. Some 15 states have adopted reforms requiring more transparency or oversight in the state hiring of private attorneys. Another 14 have reformed the method by which defendants pay interest on judgments. Wisconsin passed comprehensive tort reform in 2011. Ohio and Oklahoma recently moved to require transparency in asbestos bankruptcy trusts that are often drained by unscrupulous asbestos lawyers.

The trial bar has become aggressive about stopping this trend, leaning more on its Democratic patrons for help. Mr. Durbin knows that every company that can be harassed out of donating to ALEC means a bit less firepower for tort reform.

The Illinois senator is also a favorite of public-sector unions, which have relied on him to push back hard against public-pension and collective-bargaining reform. Illinois government unions, which have driven the state’s pension shortfall to an untenable $97 billion, are particularly anxious to beat back any fix.

Here, too, ALEC is viewed by the left as a major threat, as its model reforms that generally favor more honest accounting and a move to 401k-type plans, are increasingly appealing to state legislators. Its work helped drive a 2011 Democratic-led pension reform in Rhode Island, as well as a groundbreaking reform in Utah in 2012. Government unions are relying on Mr. Durbin to put ALEC out of business.

Mr. Durbin was uncharacteristically restrained on the topic of ALEC in his hearing this week, taking some jabs, but seemingly mindful of the free-speech firestorm his direct attack had provoked. But the senator is only beginning this campaign, so expect more pivots to ALEC in the months to come. Mr. Durbin’s friends demand it.



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