ALEC and the Bad Law Industry

I’m glad that someone as prominent as Paul Krugman has shined a big spotlight on the role of the American Legislative Exchange (ALEC) in promoting cookie-cutter state legislation like Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. To simplify and amplify Krugman’s account of ALEC’s importance, it’s a group that (a) cuts out the middle-man in linking lobbyists directly to state-level policymakers, and (b) exploits the particular neediness of state legislators.

It’s this latter factor that I’d emphasize because Krugman’s column doesn’t much touch on it. In many states legislators have little or no access to professional staff assistance–or they have to share it, which means no one is devoted to the particular cause of their glorification. Yes, there is a growing infrastructure of conservative think tanks at the state level, but like professional legislative staff, they tend to service the GOP Powers That Be.

But if you are, say, a freshman legislator elevated to office by the 2010 conservative landslide (or back in the day, by the 1994 landslide, or the mini-landslide of 2002), or by term limits, and want to make a mark really fast, you can attend a posh ALEC event (basically paid for by sponsoring lobbyists) and come home with a package of draft bills, press releases, talking points, letters to your colleagues, supporting “research”–pretty much everything you need– and quickly get yourself marked as a serious-minded conservative solon. I’m not close to this sort of thing any more, but I suspect there’s even a competition to introduce and promote ALEC’s “suggestions” in many states.

It’s a remarkably efficient bad law industry, and the marvel of it is that it often gives private interests the opportunity to achieve deeply corrupt purposes without breaking any laws, much less exchanging big sacks of money for votes.

One can only hope that this and similar incidents of bad state laws producing unsavory results help convince state-level reporters–already besieged by disinvestment, layoffs and shutdowns–to look for the ALEC label when new conservative legislation is introduced. If nothing else, this habit would take the shine off young hammer-headed lawmakers who come back from ALEC events with a good poolside tan and a batch of bills.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.