The San Francisco Chronicle
Sacramento — While two veteran state senators worked together this week on a deal to get the
Legislature out of its budget quagmire, the state Assembly broke out in a partisan food fight over what one top state official characterized as “fringe Democrats having a goofy conversation.”
Such is the difference between the staid Senate and the ever-more-raucous Assembly. During this crazy political summer in Sacramento, insiders agree, the lower house has hit a new level of dysfunction.
The latest example — a political discussion among 11 Democrats accidentally broadcast around the Capitol and a subsequent public scolding by Republicans — further illustrates how crucial public policy decisions have been caught in the cross-fire of acrimony between the parties and even within the parties.
In the Assembly, budget debates get mired in polarizing issues such as abortion. Important legislation on everything from energy policy to financial privacy dies in committee because lawmakers won’t vote. And hours are consumed squabbling over such topics as supporting Father’s Day or the war in Iraq.
“It’s not an off-base assessment to call it Romper Room,” lamented Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
Contrasts between the Senate and the Assembly always have been evident: The Senate has half the number of members, the debates are almost always less rowdy, and senators don’t face re-election every other year as Assembly members do.
“Large groups behave differently than smaller groups,” said Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, who moved from the Assembly to the Senate in 2000.
The large number of inexperienced lawmakers, mostly the result of term limits, seems to have raised the level of political chaos in the Assembly, both in serious and not-so-serious ways.
One longtime Sacramento insider noted that important private discussionsÃ‚Â occur everywhere inside the Capitol, and veteran lawmakers know two things: Check the stalls in the bathrooms before talking politics there, and always make sure the microphones are off in rooms before beginning a private meeting.
Term limits aren’t as big a factor in the Senate, where most members have at least a few years of Assembly experience under their belts and legislative staffers — who do the crucial work of hashing out the specifics of legislation — have much longer tenures.
In the Assembly, many say, term limits have reduced the effectiveness of party leaders, dramatically reduced the level of experience of lawmakers and their staffs and created an organization that is “more amateurish, much more juvenile and much less informed,” said McClintock, never one to mince words.
Because of term limits, there is no John Burton in the Assembly.
The president of the Senate, who has been in politics on and off for more than four decades, has the clout to sway most Senate Democrats to vote his way. Burton’s GOP counterpart, Sen. Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, is another longtime lawmaker with substantial strength within his party.
The two, with a combined 38 years of service in Sacramento, have spent the past week hashing out a budget deal that may be voted on in the Senate as early as Sunday.
Contrast that to Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, D-Los Angeles, and Assembly Republican leader Dave Cox of Fair Oaks; each came to Sacramento in 1998.
MISSING WILLIE BROWN
“It’s not that John Burton is better than Herb, it’s just that we’ve seen and trusted his leadership for years,” said Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, who spent six years in the Assembly before being elected to the Senate last year. Lack of leadership in the Assembly is so bad that one of the most conservative members of the Legislature, Assemblyman Ray Haynes, R-Riverside, longs for the days when San Francisco liberal Willie Brown ruled the Assembly as the always-in-charge speaker.
“Today the Assembly is out of control,” Haynes wrote in an opinion piece for the North County Times in Escondido (San Diego County) in which he noted how much better the Assembly ran when Brown was in charge. “It is in serious need of adult supervision.”
Inexperience abounds in the Assembly.
Leland Yee, a freshman Democrat from San Francisco, often mans the gavel and runs Assembly floor debates. Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, notes that when he visited Texas lawmakers, they were amazed to learn that he had become the chairman of the powerful Assembly Rules Committee after little more than one year in the Legislature.
Some senators and lobbyists grumble that new committee chairs have increasingly limited individual testimony on bills to two minutes, hardly enough time to dissect an issue.
“It’s almost impossible to have a substantial debate in the Assembly,” said one senator.
Yet debates on the Assembly floor have grown longer, and not always on germane subjects.
SQUABBLES ON THE FLOOR
In March, lawmakers spent more than 12 hours fighting over a resolution on the Iraq war, even as they acknowledged that few people cared how the California Assembly felt about the matter. Last month, as the budget deadline drew closer, a heated argument broke out over a Father’s Day resolution that Republicans rejected because it urged support for families with two dads.
The Senate approved a resolution supporting American troops without a minute of discussion.
Inexperience, coupled with a nearly constant eye toward the next campaign, makes lawmakers much less willing to upset the monied special interests that fund campaigns, some say. That is probably one reason more and more Assembly members are ducking votes on controversial bills.
DEATH OF LEGISLATION
Several bills that would have had profound effects on public policy died in Assembly committees in the past month because lawmakers simply didn’t vote.
An effort by Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, to alter the way banks and other financial companies use consumers’ fiscal data died in an Assembly committee after six members failed to vote. A bill by Sen. Joseph Dunn, D-Santa Ana, to repeal parts of the state’s disastrous energy deregulation law failed on a 0-3 vote in a 14-member committee.
Both measures had opponents with deep pockets. Speier’s bill is overwhelmingly supported in most public opinion polls.
Consumer groups cringed when Democrat Assemblyman Lou Correa, D-Anaheim, said he couldn’t vote for Speier’s bill because it created too many winners and losers. Tough legislation always does, they argued.
“They don’t have much experience; all they have are political futures,” consumer activist Heller said. “Donors are more important than constituents.”
An Assembly full of new politicians without relationships with each other is having a major impact on budget negotiations.
While the Senate is likely to approve a budget soon, few have any idea how the Assembly will come to consensus before the state runs out of money in August, drying up funds for everything from universities to nursing homes.
Cox, the Assembly Republican leader, was unable to get every Republican to vote for a GOP-proposed budget earlier this month — five members abstained. And sentiment among Assembly Democrats is all over the place.
“Everyone is drawing a line in the sand,” noted Nation, saying he has spoken with Assembly Democrats who won’t vote for a budget with deep cuts to health insurance for the poor and others who won’t back a budget that trims environmental protections.
“The way that people who have philosophical differences get along and reach agreement is through relationships,” said Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Marina del Rey. “Those relationships don’t exist as much in the Assembly.”
E-mail Mark Martin at [email protected]