Using copycat bills is responsible, not subversive
State legislators across the country are said to be abrogating their responsibilities by introducing bills they didn’t even write themselves. As the USA TODAY breathlessly reports: “special interests have infiltrated state legislatures using model legislation.” Our democracy is being subverted by copy and paste it seems.
What is model legislation?
Model legislation, sometimes called copycat legislation, is exactly what it sounds like: a model for others to use, a prewritten bill presented to a legislator by some outside – generally non-governmental – person or group.
Erin Merryn is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse turned author, speaker, child advocate and activist. She is the founder and president of Erin’s Law, an advocacy group to “persuade all 50 states to pass Erin’s Law, which mandates that all public schools use age-appropriate curricula to teach students how to tell on anyone who touches or attempts to touch their private parts.”
Erin has traveled to dozens of states, speaking to hundreds of legislators and their staff, on behalf of Erin’s Law. When visiting various state capitols, in addition to statistics on child sexual abuse and testimonials from survivors she brings a sample Erin’s Law with her.
That’s model legislation. A shortcut for lawmakers, a template for them to start from so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. For a number of reasons, copycat bills are very helpful to lawmakers and their staff as well as to the democratic process at large.
As a former legislative staffer I can attest to the usefulness of model legislation – and my immense gratitude to advocates and lobbyists that bring them to legislative offices – because why should lawmakers (and/or their staff) need to write every law from the ground up? Georgia was the latest state to pass Erin’s law, the 35th to do so, should the Georgia legislators have written the law from scratch? Or should they have looked at what other states did and adapt it to their specific needs? As New York state Senator James Sanders puts it, “We should not spend all of our time creating the wheel,” said Sen. Sanders, a Democrat. “I prefer to perfect it.”
Is there any threat from copycat bills?
The USA TODAY report opened with an ominous statement; that “special interests have infiltrated state legislatures.” Per Merriam-Webster: Infiltrate; verb: to enter or become established in gradually or unobtrusively usually for subversive purposes. The USA TODAY investigation identified at least 10,000 instances where legislators introduced bills written by someone else. The problem, as USA TODAY sees it, is that some of the authors of these bills go to great length to hide their identity and their agenda.
They don’t really define their terms but according to the USA TODAY most copycat bills originate with “industry.” The legislation they support is invariably designed to protect their interests but also frequently disingenuous in scope, intent, and presentation. Bills with lofty names, like “HOPE,” are in reality written to make it harder for people to get food stamps, for example. These bills are sometimes passed, often with very little debate, and predictable negative consequences ensue. But, if and when this happens, it is not the fault of the bills or the lobbyists supporting them. It’s the fault of the idiots and/or crooks we elected to public office.
We hire these people to pass laws. That’s literally their job description. If they’re too stupid to understand what they’re voting on, or in criminal cahoots with corporate crooks, then we need to vote them out (and if necessary arrest them). Just because a few dozen bills out of ten thousand are authored by unscrupulous activists or lobbyists intent on obscuring their role and/or the ultimate goal of the legislation is no reason to cripple the ability of sincere advocacy groups to advance their cause.
There is no such thing as a “Special Interest”
The conversation about model legislation has been steered by an ancient piece of fear-mongering about “special interest” groups. The USA TODAY report is riddled with the phrase, always coupled with nefarious insinuations, like “infiltrate.” To be fair, the phrase is used nearly universally as a pejorative. There are no shortage of headlines about the “Growing influence of special interest groups.” So, what are special interest groups?
Britannica says that a special interest group is “any association of individuals or organizations, usually formally organized, that, on the basis of one or more shared concerns, attempts to influence public policy in its favour.” Special interest groups try to change the law in their favor.
The only useful definition however, is “A special interest group is a politically active group that you disagree with.” Lobbyists are ever only evil when they represent people or issues you oppose, otherwise they’re just concerned citizens.
For most people on the left, the NRA is a special interest group. For most gun owners, the NRA is a group advocating on their behalf. For most people on the right, Planned Parenthood is a special interest group. For most young women, Planned Parenthood is a group working for their best interests. The creeping, ‘undue influence,’ of special interest groups is always described in a partisan way. Special interest groups are like the reverse of Schrodinger’s Cat; until you look at it we won’t know what you are.
If you have a problem with the Koch brothers sponsoring model legislation but not with the ACLU doing the same your issue is not with model legislation, it’s with the Koch bros. If you applaud Erin for aggressively trying to protect children in all fifty states as fast as possible but bellow when Allstate quickly rolls out new regulatory plans in all fifty state legislatures, you have beef with insurance companies, not copycat bills.
Model legislation is not a problem. There should be no issue with someone approaching their elected official and saying, “I have an idea for a law and I already wrote it down to make it easier on you.” Yes, dishonest corporations and hyperpartisan advocacy groups use model legislation. So do people like Erin.
Thomas Brown is a history teacher and recovering political consultant hiding out in the American South. He is also managing editor of The Swamp and has been published in The Bipartisan Press, Alaska Native News, GEN, Human Events, Times of Israel, Dialogue & Discourse. Follow him at his Medium page and argue with him on Twitter: @reallythistoo.
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