ALEC has tremendous influence in state legislatures. Here’s why.

December 9, 2013
President George W. Bush addresses the American Legislative Exchange Council in 2007 at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown. (Chris Greenberg/White House)
President George W. Bush addresses the American Legislative Exchange Council in 2007 at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown. (Chris Greenberg/White House)

This is a guest post by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a doctoral candidate in government and social policy at Harvard University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.  For more on ALEC, see this by political scientist Molly Jackman of the Brookings Institute.

Last week, hundreds of state legislators, representatives of major international corporations and conservative policy experts gathered in Washington for a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The meeting (like one earlier this year in Chicago) attracted large protests by progressive activists and union members. The meetings and protests also occurred on the heels of leaks of ALEC’s internal documents by the British newspaper the Guardian.

ALEC, a national nonprofit membership organization, describes itself as a “nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public,” but ALEC has also been characterized by the New York Times as a “stealth business lobbyist” and as a “bill laundry” for corporate policy ideas by Bloomberg BusinessWeek. ALEC is best known for producing model legislation for state governments that maps closely to the economic interests of the firms that are members of the group. In recent years, ALEC has promoted bills that would privatize state services, cut taxes, weaken unions (especially in the public sector) and soften or eliminate labor and environmental regulations.

By all accounts, ALEC is quite successful. Operating for 40 years, ALEC now counts nearly 2,000 state legislators (almost a quarter of all state lawmakers) and over 200 private sector groups as members, including companies such as Altria, AT&T, ExxonMobil, Google, Pfizer  and UPS. And in 2009, ALEC noted that states enacted 115 of its bills (826 were introduced).

So what accounts for ALEC’s legislative success? More specifically, what kinds of legislators and states are most likely to rely on ALEC bills?  I am tackling these questions in ongoing research. Using leaked ALEC records that provide a full listing of model bills that states introduced and enacted in 1995, I examined which states were more or less likely to pass ALEC’s bills. Unsurprisingly, conservatism matters: states with more conservative governments were more likely to pass ALEC bills.

But ideology isn’t the whole story. Another major factor was the legislative resources available to lawmakers: states where legislators had smaller budgets, convened for shorter lengths of time, and spent less time crafting policy were all more likely to enact ALEC model bills (even after accounting for the ideological orientation of state governments). Lots of legislators fit this description: In 17 states, the average state legislator only spends the equivalent of half of a full-time job on legislative work, receives about $16,000 per year in compensation and is assisted by only one staffer. A similar finding emerges when you compare legislators, too: Less-experienced legislators were much more likely to rely on ALEC model bills compared to more experienced lawmakers.

In short, ALEC is successful because legislators in many states are pressed for time and have few resources for developing legislation – making ALEC’s pre-written model bills, research assistance and policy expertise all the more appealing. This conclusion is reflected in a 2012 newspaper interview with an ALEC member from Oregon, who explained that “the group is ‘a great resource’ for a part-time legislator whose staff is comprised of his wife, who works half-time, and an aide who works three days a week when lawmakers are not in session.” And as one of ALEC’s directors proudly stated in the group’s early years: “To a legislator sitting out there in Boise with little more than a desk and a phone, we’re all there is.”

Lawmaking is a complex process.  If legislators lack the time and resources to write their own bills, is it any wonder they think ALEC is smart?

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Joshua Tucker · December 9, 2013