If there’s nothing wrong, then why can’t we take a look?


Open government is a doctrine which holds that citizens have the right to access documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight. Would a nonprofit organization with ties to state legislature and corporate interests count as a quasi-governmental agency?

The American Legislative Exchange Committee, or ALEC, is a nonprofit conservative organization that has generated controversy over the years. They describe themselves as a nonpartisan membership association for state lawmakers who share a common belief in limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty. ALEC conferences bring policy experts, business leaders, and legislators together to flesh out key issues surrounding limited government and free markets. Together, they draft model bills, which are essentially mock pieces of legislation which legislators can take back to their home states and advocate for as law.

The majority of the backlash with the organization is not with its stance on certain policy issues, but the high degrees of secrecy and lack of transparency at its conference meetings. This has become a serious issue in recent years. In 2012, the New Jersey’s The Star Ledger analyzed more than 100 bills and regulations previously proposed by the administration of Governor Chris Christie.  Similarities with ALEC model bills were “too strong to be accidental” according to the article.

Does ALEC’s status as a nonprofit organization exempt it from being transparent about their talks? According to multiple sources, ALEC does not reveal who is a member of the organization. Even though ALEC’s policy seminars are open to reporters and other nonmembers,  public conference agendas, unlike those distributed to members, do not include the names of presenters, legislative and private-sector board chairs, or the meetings’ corporate sponsors. Meeting minutes are only available to members and have never been voluntarily released.

What are your thoughts on the ethics of ALEC? 

 

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5 thoughts on “If there’s nothing wrong, then why can’t we take a look?”

  1. You ask whether ALEC is engaging in unethical activity. Transparency and secrecy definitely fall under this category, but their non-profit status protects them more than other organizations. There are few laws that force non-profits to be transparent about their organizations. Membership confidentially is understandable as some individuals would not want to be associated with a conservative group. Besides keeping members confidential, what other activities does the non-profit do that is questionably ethical?

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  2. Lack of transparency in government seems to be a large ethical concern. There are certain parts of government actions that should be kept secret. This would include CIA, homeland security and department of defense. Since ALEC deals with government members that citizens elect, I feel that there should be more transparency. Voters should know what is going on in their government and should be able to associate people and actions with ALEC.

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  3. As a principle, I absolutely feel that a group that takes money from corporate (or anyone) and then uses that to affect state laws should be more transparent.

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  4. So, as we discussed, I think Walzer and the idea of complex equality is a good approach. You could dig up his book and do more with it as your ethical source.

    There are lots of policy angles for the White Paper here. The whole transparency issue is one. In general, also, the question of influence, lobbying, and so on, especially at the state level, are important. The tax status of advocacy groups is another possibility. And, after we do Citizens United, campaign finance. You will want to find a more focused question, but there are lots of possibilities.

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