The Shadow Writers Crafting Many Of America's Laws

A growing number of lobbyists are getting prewritten bills into the hands of state and national lawmakers.
Posted at 5:39 PM, Aug 30, 2018

Passing a law is straightforward. "Schoolhouse Rock" said so.

Constituents call their congressman about a problem. He says, "You're right, there oughta be a law!" and whizzes the bill off his typewriter, ushers it past some finger-pointing colleagues and secures the president's rubber stamp.

It turns out someone else has fingers in lots of bills: lobbyists. They can play a big role these days, like when more than 6,000 hired hands weighed in on the 2017 tax bill. 

But that's public. Here's the hush-hush process. Legislative staff members (in D.C. and statehouses) aren't always writing the bills. Sometimes, outside groups hand deliver pre-drafted legislation to lawmakers.

Take Florida's Stand Your Ground Law, which some argued gave George Zimmerman legal protection in 2012 when he killed Trayvon Martin (a teen boy walking alone, unarmed).

It actually was a private group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC,  that drafted the bill. And ALEC got similar laws introduced in eight other states during the 2010-2011 session.

This group has been busy. ALEC drafted over 120 other, mostly conservative bills that year in state legislatures — on immigration, the environment, corporate regulations and more. And these bills passed at nearly five times the national rate.

Although ALEC says it wants government to put "the people in control," the Center for Media and Democracy uncovered that almost 98 percent of ALEC's funding comes from corporations and trade associations. We're talking places like ExxonMobil, a Koch charitable foundation, PhRMA.

This outsourced law writing is pretty common these days, at least in some places.

The Mercury News analyzed two California legislative sessions from 2007 to 2010 and found that, of the bills that became law, 60 percent in one year and 50 percent in another were first drafted by outside, unelected interests.

In New York, we know a powerful labor union drafted and edited fast-food worker bills that became one of Mayor Bill de Blasio's public initiatives.

Project Blitz pushes Christian-specific principles through public policy, and it seems to have influenced 70 pending bills in state legislatures as of May 2018. 

Some have defended the practice, arguing that lawmakers have the ultimate say and that legislative offices with "low policy capacity" are more likely to use outside groups — meaning special interests might add useful expertise. But critics emphasize the drawbacks.

Organizations with cash are the ones with legal resources to draft and hand-deliver legislation. The opposing party is left to fight the agenda set by big money rather than by constituents. Plus, the public is often left in the dark about the true authors of new laws.

It's all legal. But kids should know it's not always the congressman from "Schoolhouse Rock" creating their laws. Today, he's getting some help from highly paid friends in corporate suites, with thick wallets and long agendas.