First published in The Hill.
Last Wednesday, partygoers gathered at the National Portrait Gallery in downtown D.C. for a lavish event celebrating the 50 anniversary of the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC.
It’s probably safe to say that outside of Washington, more Americans have heard of Alec Baldwin, the actor, than ALEC, the so-called conservative “bill mill.” But everyone should know about it because for decades millions of Americans have been living under laws that ALEC had a direct hand in. And those laws are overwhelmingly friendly to corporations and disastrous for regular people.
Think about this: If Americans are behind bars in private prisons where you live, you can probably thank ALEC for that. If there are laws that make it hard for Black and brown Americans to vote where you live, you can thank ALEC. If there are laws where you live that make it a crime to protest against polluters and climate change, thank ALEC. And more and more frequently in the post-Dobbs world, the same goes for laws that criminalize and curtail abortion rights.
ALEC has mastered the art of churning out cookie-cutter model bills that are adopted, often word for word, by conservative state legislatures. And it’s all bought and paid for by corporations and billionaires that are only too happy to help draft laws that are great for their bottom line and bad for us.
Incredibly, hundreds — maybe thousands — of bills have been passed this way.
Worst of all, it’s a business model that depends not only on millions in corporate money but on local right-wing legislators who are willing to take orders directly from big business instead of actually working for their constituents.
It’s sleazy, it’s destructive and it has to stop. Fortunately, there are ways to make that happen.
First, there’s public pressure — and it works. Some of the biggest names in corporate America have reportedly dropped their participation in ALEC because of that pressure: companies like ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, Kraft foods, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. But there are still far too many corporations paying ALEC for the privilege of undermining democracy, including giants in big pharma, big oil and big tobacco. They need to feel the pressure that exposure, public shaming and boycotts can bring.
Second, there’s federal legislation. The Freedom to Vote Act was reintroduced in Congress in July, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was just reintroduced in September. These bills will not shut ALEC down overnight. But they will make it much harder for ALEC because the organization thrives when there is voter suppression that keeps Black voters, brown voters, working people, women and young people away from the polls — and when dark money is able to flow freely into our political system. Legislation would create more guardrails and greater transparency around money in politics as well as critically important protections for voters.
These are essential responsibilities of Congress, and with a GOP-controlled House in chaos, we are losing valuable time as ALEC sets its sights on the 2024 elections. Not only that, nobody expects ALEC to give up without a fight; it has worked hard to derail campaign finance reform in the past. We need to demand that Congress find the will to organize itself to do the work of the American people, which absolutely includes passing legislation to protect democracy against ALEC’s attempts to hijack it.
Fifty years of ALEC as a dominant force in conservative politics is more than enough. It’s time to ask ourselves if the next 50 years will belong to ALEC, or to us. If we want them to belong to us and our kids, we have to act now.