June 8, 2012


ALEC, ALICE, American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange, Joel Rogers

By Joel Rogers, who teaches law, political science, sociology and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also directs COWS, a high road think-and-do tank. He’ll be leading a breakout session on “ALICE” at the ACS National Convention next week.

ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), for nearly 40 years the best kept open secret of the American Right, has certainly been in the news lately, with reporting from Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times, National Public Radio, and many others. ALEC’s authorship of much of the GOP legislative playbook last year -- to obliterate public sector unions, restrict voting by students and the poor, roll back environmental and consumer protections, and privatize much of government -- spurred press attention. As the Times remarked afterward, “it is no coincidence that so many state legislatures have spent the last year taking the same destructive actions.” So did, more recently, ALEC’s promotion of the ”stand-your-ground” law made famous by Trayvon Martin’s killing. Special credit for increasing public knowledge of ALEC’s antics should go to ALEC Exposed, which last year published several hundred of ALEC’s model bills, helped organize a special issue of The Nation devoted to them, and has kept up a drumbeat of ALEC-watchdogging ever since. Worried about the publicity, a growing number of household name corporations, most recently Walmart, have ended their membership in the group.

This new awareness and scrutiny of ALEC is all to the good. But even better would be a progressive counter to its influence. What that would really require is probably beyond anyone’s immediate means, as it would mean matching the vast political infrastructure the Right has built in states over the last 40 years. Along with ALEC’s conferences and library of model bills, this includes broad and deep networks for mass and internal communication, staff and leadership development, candidate recruitment and training, enough recognized leadership to permit assessments of progress and strategy discussion, and a dedicated pool of patient capital for all these things. National progressive donors and institutions have never shown commitment to matching this machine, much less the coordination that such matching would require.

Recently, however, that may have begun to change. As Katrina vanden Heuvel reports in The Washington Post, over the past few months a variety of progressives active in state and local politics have come together, with unusual good feeling and focus, to jointly map their assets and develop the coordination routines needed for such infrastructure. A project I’ve helped start is part of this fledgling effort. Called ALICE (American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange), it aims to provide a one-stop, web-based, public library of progressive model law on a wide variety of issues in state and local policy. ALICE won’t be hosting state legislators at all-expenses-paid retreats anytime soon, and as a 501(c)(3), we won’t be involved in any campaigns, but we do think we can match or exceed ALEC’s model bill service. We’ll be providing model bills for local legislators as well as state ones, and models for executive-originating law (regulation and executive orders) and direct citizen-lawmaking (through ballot initiatives or referenda) as well as legislation. And along with model law language, we plan on providing commentary, policy options, and written supports in argument for it (documentation of its positive effects, public support, talking points, etc.). 

Over the past few months, with the help of a wide range of progressive advocacy groups and organizations, think tanks, and academics, we’ve assembled several hundred potential model laws, and even more “exemplary” ones (a law passed somewhere that’s worthy of replication). More are coming in almost daily. Over the next year, we hope to be polishing these laws and adding those communication supports. Our website displaying some of this work should be going live this summer.

But this is a big job, and we need even more law and policy people in it. I’m coming to the American Constitution Society's National Convention this summer in part to try to recruit some winter soldier patriots to help build this thing. ACS, which has already been great to ALICE in spreading the word to its campus chapters, has added ALICE promo materials to conference registration packets. On Friday I’ll be doing a luncheon table on ALICE, and later an afternoon breakout session. I very much hope to see some of you at either or both. If anybody reading this won’t be at the conference, or can’t wait to get involved, just go to Helping ALICE to see how you might help, or write to alice@cows.org if you’ve got questions.