In a previous post
, I mentioned that one of the chief functions of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is "drafting and then handing out ready-made, cheat sheet legislation that can be carried back to home legislatures and introduced as distributed, and all curiously geared to benefit ... the corporate sponsors who pay for the gatherings."
There's surely nothing illegal about doing this. Model legislation is written and distributed all the time, though the normal practice is to convene panels of acknowledged experts and academics in a non-partisan setting to draft it. And after all, the states are supposed to be the "laboratories of democracy," and when a policy is proven effective in one state, we rightly encourage others to follow suit. But ALEC has turned the states into something closer to cloning labs, encouraging not the cautious adoption of proven "best practices," but rather the simultaneous adoption of radical and untested neoconservative theories of public policy. Policies crafted not by non-partisan academics, but by ultra-right legislators working directly in partnership with ALEC's corporate sponsors, who have a direct hand in the work. And in an effort to take advantage of the recent election Republican governors and legislative majorities in the states, ALEC's model bills are being pushed in a national wave, in a fashion that runs directly counter to the spirit in which the "laboratories of democracy" idea was perhaps most famously stated:
Justice Louis Brandeis defended the concept dissenting in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann 285 U.S. 262 (1932), in which he stated that "It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." [Links and notes omitted.]
The ALEC approach, especially in recent years, has been to expose as much of the country at one time to that social and economic risk as possible:
An exhaustive analysis of thousands of pages of documents obtained through public records requests from six states, as well as tax filings, lobby reports, legislative drafts and court records, reveal that these suddenly popular anti-public employee bills, while taking different forms from state to state, were indeed disseminated as “model legislation” by ALEC.
Not coincidentally, bills similar to those in Florida and Wisconsin have been introduced in Arizona, California, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Vermont.
Again, it's not an allegation of illegality here, so much as it is the inherent sense of unfairness—that vague suspicion that the state legislators are cheating when it comes to doing the job the voters "hired" them to do—that sneaks up on you when you realize that in many cases, the work they're handing in is not their own. (That's especially ironic when the work relates to teacher-bashing!)
How widespread is the practice? Well, that's not yet entirely known. But given that this has more or less become the stated purpose of ALEC as an organization, we might well expect the results of a more thorough review to be rather shocking. In the short time that the ALEC Exposed database has been open to the public, people have already turned up hard examples. Like the ALEC model "right to work" (i.e., "union-busting") bill [PDF] that showed up almost verbatim as New Hampshire's HB 474. And again as Mississippi's Senate Bill 2044 (a curious find, given that Mississippi is already a "right to work" state). These are discoveries that parallel ones like that made earlier, in the above-cited In These Times article:
Given the similarities between HB 1021 and a rash of like-minded bills in states across the country, including Wisconsin, on March 30 a public records request was sent to Dorworth’s office seeking copies of all documents pertaining to the writing of HB 1021, including copies of any pieces of model legislation the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) may have provided.
Within an hour of submitting this request, Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon’s (R-Winter Park) Communications Director Katherine Betta responded: “We received a note from Representative Dorworth’s office regarding your request for records relating to the American Legislative Exchange Council and HB 1021. Please note that Mr. Dorworth’s legislative offices did not receive any materials from ALEC relating to this bill or any ‘model legislation’ from other states.”
But two weeks later Dorworth’s office delivered 87 pages of documents, mostly bill drafts and emails, detailing the evolution of what was to become HB 1021. Buried at the bottom of the stack was an 11-page bundle of neatly typed material, labeled “Paycheck Protection,” which consisted of three pieces of model legislation, with the words “Copyright, ALEC” at the end of each.
Not convinced? How about this story?
If you’re a politician looking to sponsor a bill, but your time and resources are limited and you only meet with your colleagues once every few months, ALEC provides one-stop shopping. As [former] Health and Human Services Secretary [and former Wisconsin governor] Tommy Thompson said of his days attending ALEC conferences in the 1970s, “Myself, I always loved going to these meetings because I always found new ideas and then I’d take them back to Wisconsin, disguise them a little bit, and declare that it’s mine.” Legislators who might otherwise gain little or no national distinction are able to do so within ALEC. It connects them to VIPs and strokes their egos by handing out “Legislator of the Year” awards. [Emphasis added.]
Or the findings of the LA Times:
In late January, the Indiana House of Representatives adopted a resolution asking Congress to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to stop regulating carbon emissions, declaring that "EPA over-regulation is driving jobs and industry out of America." Almost identical resolutions have won at least partial approval in a dozen other states, from Virginia to Michigan to Wyoming.
And it's no coincidence that the language of these resolutions is similar, describing EPA's plans to curb air pollution as a "train wreck" that will harm the economy.
In each case, the basic text of the resolutions sprang not from state capitols but from a relatively little-known, Washington-based nonprofit group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
Or of Businessweek?
Kim Thatcher, a Republican state representative in Oregon, introduced a sharply worded anti-cap-and-trade bill this year that said, “There has been no credible economic analysis of the costs associated with carbon mandates.” Apparently, that view is widely shared. Legislation with that exact language has been introduced in dozens of states, including Montana, New Hampshire, and New Mexico.
It’s not plagiarism. It’s a strategy. The bills weren’t penned by Thatcher or her fellow legislators in Helena, Concord, and Santa Fe. They were written by a little-known group in Washington with outsize clout, the American Legislative Exchange Council.
You surely get the idea by now. And this is by no means an exhaustive list. In fact, you can contribute to the growing pool of knowledge about the spread of these bills yourself, by reviewing the cache of leaked ALEC documents available at ALECExposed.org, comparing them to bills in your home state's legislature (or others), and sharing your findings using ALECExposed's wiki format.
Again, there's nothing illegal in theory about sharing model legislation. Nor is there anything about the practice that limits its use to conservative legislators. But for the most part, voters still labor under the impression that the legislators they elect are in the business of crafting their own legislation, tailored to the needs of their home states, and driven by the economic, social and political realities of those states. If legislation is in fact being crafted—right down to the exact language and phrasing used—in private, corporate-sponsored meetings where those same corporations have not just an equal vote alongside legislators, but actually have veto power over that language, well, that's something that journalists, activists, editorial boards and everyday folks back home just might want to know about.
It's cheating. And worse, it's cheating paid for and performed on behalf of those who are already nickel-and-diming you to death.
ALEC convenes its annual meeting this August 3rd through 6th, in New Orleans, where next year's assault on the remaining barriers to corporate rule will be planned. Loose-knit groups of protestors—including some of our own community members who've been working diligently to raise awareness in the Exposing ALEC group here at Daily Kos—plan to meet them there. Watch their live-streamed press conference from outside the convention, starting at 10 a.m. Central. Find out the details of their plans for action throughout the week and how you can help, here.