Fortunately for whomever is reading, this is not a verbose conspiracy theory rant. Rather, the goal is to shed light on a very real, very influential force in 21st century American politics that has been directly or indirectly behind most of the radical conservative agendas being pushed through various legislatures nationwide. The American Legislative Exchange Council, or “ALEC” as it’s often called, is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization comprised of lawmakers, governors, businesses, and foundations that produces model legislation for state legislatures and claims to promote conservative and free-market ideas. At first glance it seems fairly benign, nothing more than a think tank or a collaboration of like-minded people; however, the truth paints a considerably shadier picture.
ALEC was founded in 1975 by a group of mostly junior Midwestern politicians, due to concern among conservative Republicans that there was a trend towards “big government” in Washington. It wasn’t until the far-right ideology of the Republican Party gained prominence in the 1990’s that ALEC began to take root throughout the country. It currently has more than 2,000 legislative members representing all 50 states, 300 corporate/private sector members, 85 members in Congress, and 14 sitting or former governors. This is about ⅓ of all sitting legislators in the country. It is, in a way, a party within a party. Yet none of these numbers answer the most important question: What exactly does ALEC do?
Quite a lot, albeit mostly related to one thing. ALEC’s primary goal is to get conservative and pro-business legislation passed in as many statehouses throughout the country as possible, and they’ve been insanely successful. In his 2012 exposé on the group, journalist Bill Moyers states that “[ALEC was] smart and understood something very important: that they might more easily get what they wanted from state capitals than from Washington, DC. So they started putting their money in places like Raleigh, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Phoenix, Arizona; and Madison, Wisconsin.” Virtually all of the controversial ultra-conservative bills that have been proposed and or passed in the last decade have come from ALEC – Wisconsin’s removal of collective bargaining rights for public unions in 2011, the multitude of invasive anti-abortion bills, anti-immigrant bills, “Stand Your Ground” laws, massive tax breaks for large corporations like Koch Industries, the list goes on. These were all originally conceived behind closed doors at ALEC and then adapted by their legislative members in assemblies nationwide. ALEC is more than just a de facto lobbyist group – it’s a political/corporate cabal that arguably pulls more weight in American politics than any president could dream of.
Part of the reason ALEC has drawn such scrutiny is the fact that they aren’t a registered lobbyist group – they operate within a hazy portion of the law that allows for virtually unlimited and undisclosed corporate donations to the organization. Traditional lobbyists have to operate within an extensive network of laws, publicly disclose all information, and risk jail time for violating some rules. Lobbying in America is far from perfect, but a group like ALEC has little right to call itself anything but a lobbyist organization, and certainly shouldn’t benefit from not being labeled as such. ALEC is different from traditional lobbying in that its members are both the lobbyists and the legislators; they’ve cut out the middleman and essentially seeded US government with thousands of willing corporate pawns. Hundreds of corporations have been affiliated with ALEC over the years, from Exxon Mobil to AT&T. A few large corporations such as Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola recently cut ties with ALEC due to social concerns over their radical legislation, but many chose to stay. Although publicly ALEC denies that corporations vote on their board, an inside source utilized by The Center for Media and Democracy in their comprehensive “ALEC Exposed” webpage essentially confirmed that corporate members sit on all 9 ALEC panels and draft nearly all the model legislation, which is why such similar bills continue to pop up in states all over the country. Yet why are these members so eager to emulate the model legislation of their corporate masters? They were, after all, elected by their constituents and ostensibly possess the free choice to draft and vote on whatever bills they want. The answer, devoid of any political correctness, is bribery. The corporations behind ALEC treat those legislators to many monetary benefits, including all-expenses-paid vacations and trips to conventions, access to corporate campaign funding, and networking opportunities. At this point in American politics, it’s nearly impossible to get anywhere as a Republican without an ALEC connection.
Shockingly few people are aware of ALEC, let alone its stranglehold on the American political system. The first step to fighting this enemy of democracy is to recognize what it is and what it does; hopefully Americans will do what is right and recognize that their ALEC-tied legislators don’t act in their interest, and vote them out for the common good of the country. ALEC may have a lot of power, but that means nothing if their pawns can’t hold on to it for them.
This article first appeared in the Blue Collar, the student newspaper of the Interlochen Arts Academy.