By Matt Sinovic
When we learned in school how a bill becomes a law, we were taught about the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, who created checks and balances in three branches of government: executive, judicial and legislative. The executive branch administers the laws passed by the legislative branch, the judicial branch decides which laws are constitutional, and the legislative branch passes legislation that becomes law.
The legislative branch was designed to have the most power, because its members are elected from local constituencies, and therefore it should be in their interest to represent what each community wants and needs. They’re called “representatives” for that very reason: because they are supposed to represent us, their constituents.
Unfortunately, the government and democratic process in Iowa doesn’t work that way any more. Many of our legislators no longer represent Iowans, and instead are under the influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council, usually referred to as ALEC.
Here’s how it works: corporations fund ALEC, and receive direct access to state legislators at private ALEC meetings. These closed-door meetings are typically held at exotic resorts, where corporate lobbyists wine and dine legislators, then send them back to their states with template legislation written directly by and for corporate interests.
This allows Iowa legislators to pass off the legislation as their own — turning them into what the New York Times calls “stealth lobbyists.” According to the Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC has provided model legislation in Iowa to suppress voter rights, privatize our schools, withdraw from regional environmental partnerships, and require “intellectual diversity” reporting from our college campuses.
ALEC has come under increased scrutiny over the last year. First, the Center for Media and Democracy exposed hundreds of previously secret documents last summer, letting the public see how ALEC’S template legislation works for the first time. And earlier this year, ALEC was forced to discontinue its Public Safety & Elections task force, which advanced laws promoting voter suppression, and the Stand Your Ground law that became extremely controversial after the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
In response to the increased public scrutiny ALEC is facing, 30 companies and four non-profits have announced they will stop their financial support of ALEC. These include Walmart, Coca-Cola, John Deere, General Motors, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And 56 state legislators, Republicans and Democrats, have cut ties with ALEC in recent months.
Brian Quirk, a state representative from New Hampton, was one of those 56. When he quit ALEC earlier this year, he said: “ALEC’S leadership discourages bipartisan cooperation, and pushes an agenda that is wrong for Iowa. As a member, I saw firsthand the sort of legislation they push on state legislators around the country. I disagree with ALEC’S extreme agenda and the partisan way in which they operate. Our tax dollars should never be spent on funding such a partisan organization.”
Although some elected officials have canceled their membership, too many Iowa legislators are still members of ALEC, representing corporate interests instead of their constituents. And because of a decision by the leadership in the Iowa House of Representatives, our tax dollars are being spent on ALEC memberships, subsidizing this corporate lobbying group.
The activities of ALEC have corrupted Iowa’s legislative process, and severely manipulated our representative democracy. The Founding Fathers gave us three branches of government, and we don’t need any of the three to be replaced by corporate interests. While they are writing, debating and passing the laws that govern our state, all Iowa legislators have a choice: Will they represent ALEC, or Iowa?
Matt Sinovic is the Executive Director of Progress Iowa, a statewide, multi-issue organization focused on research, education and advocacy regarding Iowa public policy. More information at progressiowa.org. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org