ALEC: The Organization that Makes the Case for a Constitutional Amendment

This is a post from Public Citizen’s Democracy is For People Campaign, co-authored by Legal Fellow Sean Siperstein and campaign Intern Nima Shahidinia. Get involved, and follow @RuleByUs on Twitter for more information!

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) held its national convention at a plush resort in Scottsdale, Arizona this past week. The little-known, but extremely influential corporate-backed membership organization and policy clearinghouse for state legislators was met with inspired counterprotests by a diverse array of activists. Demonstrators included Occupy Phoenix, members of the Tohono O‘Odom Nation, and a number of labor unions and other community groups (both national and local).

ALEC Protest, Cincinnati, Ohio, April 29, 2011. Sign reads "American Legislators Exemplifying Corruption." Flickr image via Mentamark.

Why the fuss, and why such a broad-based opposition? Part of it stems from the fact that ALEC– as a new report by Common Cause and People for the American Way documents—has an unparalleled level of influence over top legislators in Arizona in particular, and essentially wrote a wide array of legislation in that state. This impact includes the state’s infamous SB1070 immigration law, efforts to privatize of prisons, and attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, and public education.

Another important fact the report highlights: the 22 corporations on ALEC’s “Private Enterprise Board” have spent over $16 million on influencing Arizona state elections over the past decade. Overall– as documented by the Center for Media and Democracy’s ALEC Exposed project— ALEC receives 98% of its funding from corporations, corporate trade groups, and corporate foundations. Each corporate member pays between $2500 and $25,000 a year in annual fees, and many corporations provide direct grants.

This is truly illuminating and worth highlighting because, as last month’s landmark IRRC report on corporate campaign spending and transparency documented, one large gap between what major corporations (including ALEC’s funders) claim they spent on “political activity” and what they actually spent occurs in the realm of state politics. Additionally, it’s often most difficult to track and quantify corporate influence in state elections due to lower disclosure requirements.

In other words, taking this all together, Citizens United only paves the way for more spending and influence in states like Arizona– sometimes through direct advocacy for candidates via shadowy means like SuperPACs– by ALEC’s corporate membership.

In light of Common Cause’s findings in this and other reports and ALEC’s track record– which also has included legislators receiving paid-for, plush vacations that they could not otherwise afford, ranging from family getaways to adult entertainment—the implications for the organization’s leverage over elected officials are, to say the least, troubling.

In Arizona and across the country, this means narrow benefits for corporations that own and build private prisons, threaten the environment for short-term gain, and oppose workers’ rights, but overall damage to longer-term foundations for progress and to individual citizens’ health and civil rights. In other words, it’s the exact kind of subversion of democracy by self-interested factious interests that the Constitution’s framers wished to guard against in constructing a system where the voice and individual rights of We the People ideally took precedence.

The solution, for the sake of our democracy and for all of the critical issues where ALEC is distorting it in a regressive way, is the bold but necessary one that the Democracy is For People campaign exists to help mobilize. We must organize, but not just merely against ALEC and its funders, but for reclaiming our Constitution and our democracy from the warped logic that somehow places corporate “rights” to influence elections at the heart of the American creed.

On January 21, 2011—the 2 year anniversary of Citizens United—Americans around the nation will be gathering in their town halls and public spaces to demand a constitutional amendment that overturns Citizens United and curtails corporate dominance over elections.

We’ll have more here on Citizen Vox later this week on some of the amazing grassroots organizing going on across the nation to build for the National Day of Action. And meanwhile, it’s not too late to sign up to join us, your fellow citizens, and legendary Texas populist Jim Hightower for another nationwide round of organizing parties on Bill of Rights Day, December 15!