The Growing Influence of Special Interest Groups in Orange County Politics

Elected officials often express their frustration with the influence of special interest groups on U. S. politics. But the truth is that these groups work closely with members of Congress and the administration to draft legislative and policy initiatives, provide information to both the government and the public on a wide range of current issues, and contribute significantly to political campaigns.

The number of interest groups has grown exponentially in recent years, and it's hard to think of a segment of American society that isn't represented by at least one. These so-called “model bills” are often disguised as the work of legislators, and are then copied in one state Capitol after another, discreetly promoting the agenda of the people who wrote them. USA TODAY and The Republic found that over the past eight years, at least 10,000 bills had been introduced across the country, almost entirely copied from model legislation, and that more than 2,100 of those bills had been enacted into law. The research examined nearly 1 million bills in all 50 states and Congress using a computer algorithm developed to detect similarities in language. That search, based on the equivalent of 150 computers that worked non-stop for months, compared known model legislation with bills introduced by legislators. The phenomenon of copycat legislation is much greater than previously thought.

In another analysis, the Center for Public Integrity identified tens of thousands of bills with identical phrases and then traced the origin of that language in dozens of those bills across the country. Model bills passed as law have made it difficult for injured consumers to sue businesses. They have asked for taxes on sugar-loaded beverages. They have limited access to abortion and restricted the rights of demonstrators.

In total, these copycat bills represent the largest and most unreported special interest campaign in the country, as they drive the agendas of every state and affect nearly every area of public policy. The research reveals that fill-in-the-blank bills have supplanted in some states the traditional approach of writing laws from scratch. They have been so intertwined with the legislative process that the country's main sponsor of copycat legislation, a member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, claimed to have signed 72 such bills without knowing or questioning their origin. For legislators, copying model legislation is an easy way to get comprehensive bills in which to put their names and, at the same time, build relationships with lobbyists and other potential campaign donors. As the research was based on collating identical texts, it pointed to cases in which legislators copied model legislation almost verbatim, but did not detect bills that would adapt an idea without using the same language. Sherri Greenberg, who spent 10 years in the Texas Legislature and now holds the Max Sherman Chair of State and Local Government at the University of Texas at Austin, said that bills tended to stem from the experiences of legislators, voters or lobbyists who represented long-established industries. Model legislation has prospered as Congress's impasse has forced special interest groups to go to states to do things, he said. Charles Siler, former manager of external relations at the Goldwater Institute, which has promoted copycat bills across the country, said it's a quick way to spread ideas because with few modifications legislators can adapt it to their state.

Allison Anderman, managing attorney at the Giffords Legal Center for Preventing Gun Violence, a supporter of gun control, said that model bills are simply how things work now. The Asbestos Transparency Act seems like a boring but necessary policy that voters expect their representatives to adopt on their behalf to safeguard public health. In fact, it described companies as victims of litigation brought by people harmed by asbestos. The model bill requires people who fight against mesothelioma - a disease caused by asbestos - to request money from a trust created to compensate victims before being able to sue a company whose product could have caused them cancer. That process can take months or even a year. Many victims of mesothelioma die within a year of their diagnosis; their families can still sue on their behalf but for much less money. Bob Winokur worked for the U.

Forest Service and served as mayor of Fort Collins, Colorado; he never specified where he came into contact with asbestos and never filed a claim to help pay his medical bills. The disease progressed too quickly for him to do so even without additional requirements proposed in the Model Bill, Chris Winokur said. One such expert was Mark Behrens who travels thousands of miles a year testifying before legislators about ALEC's model asbestos legislation; he has done so in at least 13 states where he has been classified as an objective authority. Behrens is an attorney at Shook Hardy & Bacon who represents companies in complex civil litigation; The House Legal Reform Institute is a branch of America's largest business lobby which has stated its objective as reducing litigation. A Democratic legislator lobbied Behrens about why this 26-page bill needed technical language that could confuse victims trying to receive compensation; she called it “a gift for the accused” before voting against it. Sonnenberg told USA TODAY he didn't know Behrens was working for The Chamber Of Commerce when he called him to testify; Behrens said that The Asbestos Transparency Act seeks to hold wrongdoers accountable while exonerating innocent companies paying for harm they didn't cause. Graves said special interests have so-called experts who are not neutral; they go all over the country testifying about these bills as if they were good for that state or even as if they were products of that state.

Bill Meierling marketing director & executive vice president at ALEC said supporters of this asbestos model believed it generated more transparency but each state should choose its own name when copying ALEC's model; USA TODAY found more....