Business Blackmail Backfire; AT&T declines the Durbin offer it wasn't supposed to refuse.
16 September 2013
The Wall Street Journal
Dick Durbin had planned to continue his political campaign against a free-market group on Tuesday with a hearing that was supposed to include Trayvon Martin's mother as a prop. The Illinois Democrat delayed the hearing after the awful Navy Yard shootings, but it's still worth reporting that at least one of the American Legislative Exchange Council's corporate sponsors is refusing to capitulate to the political intimidation.
ALEC's focus is center-right fiscal and economic reforms, and its success in state capitals has drawn the wrath of liberal activists. They've responded with a racial smear campaign, linking ALEC-and also its financial backers-to the Trayvon Martin shooting. ALEC supported a stand-your-ground gun law in Florida in 2005.
In August Mr. Durbin sent letters to various CEOs demanding that they explain their ALEC financing, which they do not by law have to disclose, and declare themselves on such legislation. He then threatened to disclose the information at Tuesday's show trial.
This tactic earned him a rebuff in late August from AT&T senior vice president James Cicconi, who noted in a letter to Mr. Durbin that it seems "inescapable that any response to your request will be used by those interests whose purpose is to pressure corporations to de-fund organizations and political speech with which they disagree." This is a polite way of saying we know what you're up to.
Mr. Cicconi notes that AT&T contributes to groups "that span the political spectrum," including such Durbin favorites as the liberal Center for American Progress, because its goal is "to support heathy and respectful political dialogue and well-informed, well-debated public policies." A litmus test like Mr. Durbin's "risks weakening the political processes and institutions on which our democracy depends."
For the record, AT&T backs ALEC to promote "state legislation aimed at achieving and maintaining a favorable business climate," not social-issue laws with no direct bearing for its shareholders. Mr. Cicconi adds that AT&T told ALEC that noneconomic advocacy detracts from the group's core mission, and ALEC has shut down a task force dedicated to noneconomic issues.
At least that suggestion is better than dumping ALEC summarily, as companies like Coca-Cola and Kraft have done. (Disclosure: Our editorial board member Stephen Moore is the co-author of an ALEC-supported study on the economic performance of various states. He was not compensated for his research.)
But the larger issue here is a politician trying to cut off funding for political opponents by threatening damage to the image of corporate funders. As Mr. Cicconi notes, the anti-ALEC lobby is "driven by a differing political ideology. And while outside groups are certainly free to engage in such activity as part of their free speech rights, companies like AT&T must also be free to make our own decisions on such matters as part of our free speech rights." The danger is when one side tries "to enlist government" to shut up the other, which is why AT&T tries "to resist the predictable political pressure tactics from whatever political source."
That's not the typical response of the business class to Durbin-style ransoms, but it's certainly welcome. If CEOs always roll over for political bullies, they will keep bullying.