We know that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a powerful behind-the-scenes player, boasting that it introduces about 1,000 bills a year, and passing 20 percent of them. But until now, there was no way of empirically measuring how much influence the corporate bill mill has in state politics. This might be about to change. A new study by Alex Hertel-Fernandez, a PhD student in Government and Social Policy at Harvard University, sheds disturbing light on the extent to which ALEC has succeeded in its mission to root out public-sector unions in the United States.
Membership Down by Ten Percent a Year
By comparing the text of ALEC model bills affecting unions with bills enacted in state legislatures, Hertel-Fernandez found twelve instances of “ALEC-authored bills related to public unions.” These were often omnibus bills with provisions to restrict collective bargaining rights, and make it more difficult to collect membership dues, while at the same time making it easier for the state to privatize public services.
He then “estimated the effect that the enactment of these bills had on public-sector union density,” that is, the proportion of employees who are union members. The same pattern was repeated across the states; the bills would kick into effect a few years after they were enacted. After that period, the new legislation caused a drop in union membership by three percentage points a year on average. This might not seem like a sharp decline, but it equals “nearly 10 percent of the public-sector union density in the country as a whole.” No comparable decline was observed in states where no ALEC anti-union bill was signed into law. Studies have shown that when family supporting public sector jobs are privatized, they are often transformed into low-wage jobs with few benefits.
ALEC – A Crutch for Lazy Legislators?
In addition to quantifying the influence of ALEC, Hertel-Fernandez is also looking at why lawmakers choose to introduce its model bills in the first place. By analyzing very different data sets – from the number of ALEC bills enacted in a specific year to a survey where lawmakers were asked how much time they spend on different activities – he has reached some startling conclusions.
Ideological affinity is of course an important factor; it goes without saying that GOP legislators who are staunch supporters of big business are more likely to introduce legislation drafted by big business. But even more important are factors that we can lump together under the heading “for convenience’s sake.”
Part-time lawmakers who have to juggle the obligations of other jobs with their legislative duties are much more likely to pick an ALEC bill from off the shelf. In contrast, those who work full-time in the state capitol, and have access to professional and unpartisan legislative resources, are much less likely to resort to fill-in-the-blanks bills.
Hertel Fernandez’ findings, published in the journal Perspectives on Politics, goes some way towards explaining something that has puzzled many observers: around ten percent of ALEC bills introduced in state legislatures are sponsored by Democrats. “A surprising result given ALEC’s strongly conservative ideology,” as Molly Jackman with the Brookings Institution put it in a blog post last year. But according to this research, some Democrats prefer to pull ALEC cookie-cutter bills from off the shelf to doing nothing at all.
New Avenues of Inquiry
To date, academics have only taken an empirical lens to debunking the claims of so-called ALEC scholars, like Arthur Laffer, who writes ALEC’s annual “Rich States, Poor States” report. Peter Fisher, professor at the University of Iowa and head of the Iowa Policy Project, and Menzie Chinn, Professor of Public Affairs and Economics at UW-Madison, have shown that the “pro-business” policies touted by Laffer and his ilk actually hurt economic growth. Los Angeles Times writer Michael Hiltzik summed it up nicely: “They just make the rich richer, which is not the same thing at all."
While debunking the “research” churned out by ALEC’s paid roster of “scholars” is important, Hertel Fernandez’ research opens up new avenues of inquiry. Would it, for example, be possible to gauge what effect ALEC education bills have had on the number of K-12 students enrolled in for-profit charter and voucher schools? What impact have ALEC Voter ID laws on suppressing the vote from state to state?
Hopefully, academic researchers will take a look at these and other important questions.