President George W. Bush addresses the American Legislative Exchange Council Thursday, July 26, 2007, at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown. The President urged the legislators to "to not rely upon the latest opinion poll to tell you what to believe. I ask you to stand strong on your beliefs, and that will continue to make you a worthy public servant." White House photo by Chris Greenberg
President George W. Bush addresses the American Legislative Exchange Council in 2007 at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown. (Chris Greenberg/White House)

It probably wasn’t far from what liberals might expect.

Inside the hotel ballroom, lawmakers and others dined while notable conservatives such as Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson railed against the federal government. Outside, conservative groups, including the Family Research Council and Americans United for Life,  set up tables with swag and promotional materials. Even the Charles Koch Institute had one, with branded beer koozies and pens, books by famous libertarians Friedrich August Hayek and Thomas Sowell, and a “‘Staches of Freedom” tote bag featuring drawings of facial hair belonging to famous free-market thinkers.

The setup Wednesday was part of a four-day convention at Washington D.C.’s Grand Hyatt hotel, hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that has in recent years become a favored target of progressives and unions. ALEC made its name bolstering conservative and often corporate-friendly policies in the states. This year, its goal is to limit the power of one of the few institutions that could undo that work: the federal government.

“This is going to be a year we’re going to focus on federalism and partnerships with organizations that believe in the things we do,” incoming ALEC Chairwoman and Iowa state Rep. Linda Upmeyer told the lunch crowd Wednesday, the second day of the conference, which ends Friday. “The balance of power must be restored and states will lead the way.”

Federal overreach has always been bad for ALEC and groups like it across the political spectrum, of course. ALEC has for years focused on connecting state lawmakers and its corporate members — a roster that has included dozens of the nation’s largest and well-known firms — and maintains a vast library of model state bills for lawmakers to use and modify. Such work can easily be upended by federal laws and regulations.

The twin focus on enlisting partner organizations and reining in the power of the federal government comes amid controversy for ALEC. It has lost 390 members since 2011, though its current membership is around 2009 levels, according to a leaked document published by the Guardian. Over that time, liberals have increasingly criticized the group for its stances, including its one-time support of so-called “stand your ground” laws, a version of which played a key part of the defense in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Dozens of companies, which serve to fund the group, have also allowed their membership to lapse, and a large hole in projected income developed in the first half of this year, according to the document. ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling cast the membership losses as part of a normal ebb and flow, as lawmakers leave office and corporations merge or shift priorities.

As intellectual inspiration for its goal of taming the federal government, ALEC draws on the words of founding father James Madison. “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite,” he wrote in Federalist Paper 45, part of a broad argument for ratifying the Constitution.

Those words, Upmeyer said, support ALEC’s belief that “people are better served by local leaders.”

In pursuit of its goals, ALEC plans to partner with like-minded organizations. “We can’t go this alone,” she said. And that was evident in the first workshop of the four-day conference, a panel focused on a plan to call a convention of states under the Constitution to limit the powers of the federal government, developed by a group called Citizens for Self-Governance. CSG is led by Meckler. He was joined by CSG senior fellow and constitutional lawyer Michael Farris, CSG legal analyst Robert Kelly and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who supports the effort.

While ALEC is unaffiliated with the convention effort, which requires two-thirds of states to sign on,  Meierling said certain members are interested in the issue. The panel, titled “The Solution — A Convention of States to Restrain the Power, Scope and Jurisdiction of the Federal Government,” was the first of nine scheduled over the course of ALEC’s States & Nation policy convention, which also includes a number of restricted-access meetings of its nine task forces.

The convention of states group hopes to exploit the public’s ever-eroding trust in the federal government for its cause and discussed how best to sell the effort. “It’s not about states rights, it’s about local control,” Fariss said. The former, especially in the South, connotes slavery. When you use the latter, “you just steer the language in the proper direction,” he said.

The other ALEC workshops are more policy-oriented. The second was focused on distributed generation of electricity. (ALEC supports charging homeowners who want to redistribute their surplus solar energy back onto the grid.) Others focused on Latino engagement, whether Medicaid expansion is “compassionate or corrosive,” marketing pension reform, combating patent litigation, the impact of the Endangered Species Act on energy development, overreach in environmental regulations and efforts to limit corporate speech.

Despite the recent controversy, the leaked ALEC documents show that it still boasted 1,810 members, roughly one in every four state lawmakers nationwide. And the convention has attracted notable speakers, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).