As it turns out, conservatives are right. There is a shadowy cabal of highly placed insiders pushing unread legislation through Congress in the dead of night. It’s called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and it’s a 100 percent radical right-wing operation funded by the Koch brothers, by the NRA, by big tobacco, and by dozens of other industries with an interest in promoting corporations above people. ALEC gets funded to the tune of $21 million to do nothing but write legislation for conservative congressmen and to make supporting those corporate causes as easy as carrying a piece of paper down the hall.
ALEC exists only to see that bills hand-tailored by corporate lobbyists show up for vote, after vote, after vote at the local, state, and national level. They are a “non-partisan private-public partnership” that works very hard at seeing that worker safety is abolished, that the EPA is demolished, and that health care remains strictly between you and whatever service your unregulated insurance company deigns to provide. Oh, and guns, guns, guns.
That’s how nearly identical “Stand Your Ground” laws ended up being passed not just in Florida, but in Alabama, and Arizona, and Missouri and two dozen other states. West Virginia passed 25 ALEC-authored bills last year. Missouri slid 21 through the well-greased pipe. What was in ALEC legislation? Well, 100+ bills focused on protecting workers by limiting their rights to unionize, 130+ chipped in to help kids by destroying public education, and over 70 bills gave a hand to small business by protecting international corporations from being sued when their workers or customers were, you know, killed or injured.
In the last year alone, ALEC managed to get a staggering 466 bills sponsored in state and federal legislatures. ALEC-designed bills appeared in the state legislatures of all 50 states. 84 of those bills became law. I'm sure their sponsors are very happy with their investment.
Now, come inside. Let's make them sad.
ALEC is highly successful because legislators are human (yes, really). As humans they are both inclined to do the minimum amount of work and constantly overwhelmed by the picayune details of life. Presented with Options A: do your own research, craft your own language, develop your own supporting arguments, and put yourself on the line for something that may turn out to be a disaster or Option B: sign a pre-digested bill that comes with its own glossy brochure and the promise of monetary support from a cadre of well-heeled backers, it’s not surprising that there are plenty of people ready to go with B.
Besides, conservatives really hate the whole business of government, including the business of governing. How many times have you heard a conservative congressman or senator complain that a bill is too long, that no one can understand those things they pass, that actually doing their job is just too hard? On any given day, Mitch McConnell can be counted on to tell you the page count on some bill he didn’t like, because sneaking a peak at the page number is all the effort Mitch is willing to put in. Ted Cruz won’t go that far. He’ll just make up a number.
With ALEC, conservatives don’t have to read. ALEC writes the bills and hands them over ready to go. They can eliminate that two percent of a congressman’s time that was still wasted on governing the country, and allow them to go back to the fundraising and networking that takes up the other 98 percent. In fact, ALEC lets them do both at once.
It’s a sad fact that doing the wrong thing is often easier than doing the right thing. ALEC makes it stupidly easy to do the wrong thing—and get paid handsomely.
So how do we—and by we, I don’t mean just the readers of Daily Kos, or just those even slightly left of Attila the Hun, but we as in everybody not having their pre-scripted interests hand delivered to congress on a silver platter—how to we fight back? Well, we can and should continue to expose ALEC for what it is. We should also work to embarrass those legislators who abrogate their responsibilities by slurping up ALEC’s droppings and spewing them out under their own names.
But we have to do more. We have to make doing the right thing as easy as doing the wrong thing. We need to do more than just expressing our desires to Congress. We need to pick up quill, sit down at keyboard, grab a tablet, and fight model legislation with model legislation.
We need to be the Anti-ALEC. We have to tap into that original crowdsourcing idea, democracy, to craft model legislation that’s designed by the people, for the benefit of the people. And yes, I know that statement sounds as if it should accompanied by a cheesy blare of trumpets, or panned across the screen a la Ken Burns, but that doesn’t make it any less true. If we are not willing to provide legislators with an easy route to passing good bills, you can be sure they will pass bad ones.
No one is going to show up tomorrow with $21 million to create model legislation that truly protects workers, shields consumers, upholds rights, safeguards education and promotes the environment. We can’t wait on Superman to protect the weak. We have to be superman.
To fight against ALEC and its smoky backroom (and with big tobacco as a major sponsor, you just know that room is smoky enough to cure hams), let’s build legislation out in the open. In the electronic town square. Instead of having each bill shaped by callous lobbyists who work for the interest of the few, let’s use the hands of the many.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s too hard, it requires too much legal knowledge, and in the word’s of Otto von Bismark "laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them made." Only I’m asking you not just to see the sausage made, but to get your hands dirty making it. Is it hard? Eh, sometimes, but every bill doesn’t have to be encyclopedic.
Look, here’s a bill. One of my favorites, in fact.
Clean Water Protection ActThat doesn’t seem too long, does it? You know what this bill would do if passed? This bill would outlaw “mountaintop removal” mining, the kind of mining that’s leveling 400 million year old mountains and clogging scenic rivers with sludge. This bill could save the environment, preserve communities and positively affect lives across dozens of states, and it's just 137 words. Including titles.
To amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to clarify that fill material cannot be comprised of waste.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE.
This Act may be cited as the `Clean Water Protection Act'.
SEC. 2. DEFINITION OF FILL MATERIAL.
Section 502 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (33 U.S.C. 1362) is amended by adding at the end the following:
`(26) FILL MATERIAL- The term `fill material' means any pollutant which replaces portions of the waters of the United States with dry land or which changes the bottom elevation of a water body for any purpose. The term does not include any pollutant discharged into the water primarily to dispose of waste.
Granted, there's more to this bill than getting some words on paper. It took people with insight into how mountaintop removal works, and the background expertise to know that the whole viability of this vile process hinges on being able to dump shattered rock into streams based on a weasel-word interpretation of the term "fill."
You know what we have here? A lot of experts, with detailed background knowledge on almost any subject and a willingness to share that knowledge. Let's use it. We have practical knowledge from members who have worked on campaigns, in congressional offices, and offices in every state. Let's use it. We have the access that comes with years of contributing, in every sense, to getting candidates elected to office. Let's use it.
What we have here is a resource that is a lot bigger than just the dollars in our pockets. Let's use it to craft our own legislation, with our own open process, and work to get that legislation into the hands of actual lawmakers at every level.
Just think of it as Bill Starter—the kickstarter of democracy. A place to go from "that's a good idea" to "Excuse me, Senator, I have something here I think might interest you."
How is this going to work? I think we have all the tools we need: diaries and groups to showcase ideas, messages and comments to offer suggestions, polls and votes to gather opinion. I'm imagining that we can begin with raw ideas, gather in those interested in moving that idea forward, then reshape, rewrite and use every channel available to make it so.
Then again ... maybe I'm imagining too much. You tell me. Tell me how you think it should work. Better still, tell us all about your ideas, the things that pop into your head alongside the phrase "there ought to be a law."
Because I not only think we can beat ALEC at their own game and do a lot of good in the process, I think it can be fun simply to try.