Model Bills: Trust, but Verify

I came across this expose from USA Today about model legislation, the practice of a think-tank or industry lobbyist writing legislation that can be introduced in copy-cat form across multiple States.  It argues that this “copy-paste” approach to legislation undermines democracy and benefits corporations.

After skimming the piece, I think USA Today’s concerns are way overblown.  The article’s main issues seem to be the following:

  • Legislators aren’t dreaming up bills organically, but using pre-written bills that are handed to them
  • These bills have misleading titles that don’t do what they advertise
  • It’s not fair introduce legislation this way because…?

Sure, we should want engaged legislators working on our behalf.  But lobbying for legislation isn’t anything new, and it would make particular sense for a think-tank to write up a generic version of a bill that could be adapted to different States’ local conditions.  If anything, I don’t want legislators dreaming up too many new laws:  who knows what wacky stuff they’d produce?

As for the misleading bill titles, isn’t this true for most legislation?  The “Affordable Care Act” didn’t make healthcare any more affordable.  In fact, it didn’t have anything to do with health careper se, but health insurance.  For that matter, newspapers routinely publish misleading headlines, the articles of which often contain the exact opposite meaning of what the headlines blare.

The USA Today piece looks at several pieces of legislation, including various “right to try” bills, a national version of which President Trump ultimately signed into law.  That law allows patients with severe medical conditions to try drugs that aren’t yet tested.  That’s a brilliant piece of legislation; why wouldn’t you want that copy-pasted to every State in the Union?

The piece notes that corporate lobbying groups use this “model bill” approach the most, followed by conservative groups.  It makes sense that conservative groups would focus on their advantage in State legislatures around the country, rather than trying their luck with Congress; it’s also consistent with conservatism’s emphasis on federalism.

The only model bill that seemed unethical in the piece was one involved shielding companies from mesothelioma lawsuits.  The bill’s name misleadingly suggests it’s about protecting against asbestos, when it’s really designed to pay mesothelioma sufferers out of an asbestos trust before they can file suit against a company.  USA Today breathlessly points out that most victims of the condition succumb in under a year, and don’t get a chance to get their money.

With all respect and love to the folks suffering from mesothelioma, I’m not exactly losing sleep over a bill that seeks to limit ambulance-chasing litigation.  What’s wrong with being paid from an arbitration pool?

Regardless, while the piece is interesting—it’s worth a skim—it’s the same kind of breathless, pearl-clutching, “democracy-dies-in-darkness” pabulum that the media loves to serve up.  If model bills benefited progressive policies, would they be causing such a fuss?

Yes, we should hold our elected officials more accountable, and expect them to do their due diligence.  If they’re approached with one of these bills, they should read it carefully, and weigh it against the needs and desires of their constituents.

Otherwise, this model bill situation seems like a non-issue, or only a very minor one.  My takeaway:  trust, but verify.


2 thoughts on “Model Bills: Trust, but Verify

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