December 9, 2013

Great guest post at The Monkey Cage by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez about what accounts for the effectiveness of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the state-level business lobbyists:

[I]deology 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) … 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.

If what you want is top-down national parties — in this case, what’s essentially a party-aligned group that exists within the broader Republican Party — making decisions, then there’s nothing wrong with that. One can argue, indeed, that most voters don’t really know much about state legislative candidates but do know something about national political parties, and so it’s certainly possible that when legislators (or at least Republican legislators) pass ALEC’s pre-fab bills, they’re really more accountable than if they developed their own legislation.

On the other hand, if what you want are the advantages of state governments (laboratories of democracy and all that), then you’re not getting much of it with centralized national parties and influential interest groups.

What is clearly true, whatever one believes about democracy, is that (as most political scientists will tell you) reducing the capacity of a legislature rarely means that power returns to the people at large. Instead, if legislatures become less able to function, then someone else makes the decision — interest groups, governors, bureaucrats or others.

It seems to me that the best solution, then, if one wants democracy, is to empower legislators, whether by removing term limits, or raising pay, or adding professional staff, or all those things. It’s true: They may not always be as responsive to their constituents as one might like (although I’d wager that well over half the time complaints about a legislator ignoring her constituents are really just about that legislator ignoring whoever is complaining). But at least legislators and other politicians are the one group in a political system who have a clear, unambiguous incentive to pay attention to those constituents. Stronger individual state legislators would probably still be very partisan and polarized. But they would certainly be far more capable of working on behalf of the particular, specific interests of their constituents and their states than whatever national interest groups might produce.