three gears

With institutional memory largely archived with professional staff, California lawmakers have had to find new paths to old policy places.

A lawmaker from California's mid-20th century past might startle to see today's Assembly members and senators.

Not only do these new-millennium lawmakers zip by in hybrid cars and juggle phone, Internet and Blackberry, but they face elections with price tags that might have then seemed like science fiction. Even greater institutional change is credited to the 1990 implementation of term limits.

But it doesn't take a time machine to recognize the California Legislature's evolution (or devolution, depending on whom you speak to). The "old days" are locked in the memories of staffers and
former staffers, individuals who have seen a reflective, static leadership structure give way to a breakneck legislative pace and—until recently—increasingly combative partisan rhetoric. Some suggest that the system is broken, but those who know aren't so sure.

Not broken, but seen better days

The system is "not broken, but it certainly has worked better in the past," says Jim Collin, a staffer of more than 20 years. "…It is a mechanical process. On top of that are the personalities—and politics."

Collin has encountered more than a few powerful personalities in his time working for the Legislature. In the time of Willie Brown, when politics seemed more personal, he recalled the trials of Rose Ann Vuich, the first woman elected to the Senate.

After a personality clash with Vuich, then-Speaker Willie Brown said none of her bills would get out of the Assembly. But several other senators wrote what she wanted done into their bills and "everything was passed and signed" anyway.

"It was more open in those days," Collin recalls.

Today's clashes seem less personal, Collin said, and how a lawmaker votes on a bill in the Assembly might depend only on how her own bills came back from the Senate, not on the conflicts or alliances shaped by time.

How important is institutional memory?

One of the most profound forces shaping today's Legislature, term limits draw the ire of senior staff and many lobbyists who deplore the fact that they must re-educate a vast new crop of lawmakers each year.

"The only people who have institutional memory are the lobbyists," explains Luke Breit, himself a lobbyist for nonprofit groups and a long-time staffer who served under Brown and other speakers in many functions, including as "spinmeister."

Without this institutional memory, Assembly members and senators cannot always perform legislative review of their actions, Collin says. He recalls that a lawmaker who passed legislation would more often come back "three, four, five years later" to review what the department had done to implement the measure, compared to the policy ideas that had been written into the legislation or discussed during hearings. Because the same players were still in the game, there was "more true oversight."

"We still do these reviews and evaluations," he adds, but lobbyists and staffers have new influence, because they were present for the discussions and have the institutional memory.

Better public perception?

Problematic as they may be, term limits had their benefits, among them, increased diversity in the Assembly and Senate membership. A Public Policy Institute of California review of the 2004 book Adapting to Term Limits: Recent Experiences and New Directions by Bruce E. Cain and Thad Kousser notes that term limits "accelerated trends of increasing female and minority representation that were already underway in California."

Another oft-forgotten issue that presaged the term limits movement was a confluence of arrogance in Sacramento and corruption in Washington. Voters seethed when Brown proclaimed himself "Ayatollah of the Assembly," and anti-government angst only grew stronger when federal agents unveiled the extent of "Abscam." Angry voters shook things up by approving Proposition 140 in 1990—at least that's what they thought.

"One of the reasons the arrogance existed was because of the perception of 'safe seats,' in which a lawmaker could do anything he or she wanted without fear of ballot-box backlash," says Breit. Term limits did little to address the phenomenon, however. A bi-partisan gerrymander and a closed primary system have made safe seats safer than ever before.

More beholden to money

Breit—who now works as a lobbyist for nonprofit groups—and others working for nonprofit advocacy groups disdain what they say is the preponderance of money in today's politics. High advertising costs and other rising charges drive up the cost of running a campaign in the Golden State, forcing candidates to raise more money. Moreover, when their terms are finished, California's lawmakers must seek out new positions—often among Third House lobbyists—even as they continue to serve their constituents, Breit explains.

Because of this, some in the Capitol become "more beholden to the people who might be giving them their next jobs" than to the people who reside in their district, Breit adds.

Money also gives special interests new ways to end-run the Legislature itself via the initiative process, Breit said. If lawmakers say no, "groups say, 'We'll just go to the people,'" he explains.

Going new places

Collin compared the new legislative process to "the staircase in Harry Potter," where you think a certain set of stairs has a particular destination, but it is always shifting. In the books and films, the same set of stairs may lead to a dorm room, a classroom or a more mystical destination. In today's reality, he says, lawmakers now take different paths to arrive at many of the same policy places as lawmakers did in the "old days," when the Ayatollah of the Assembly did battle with Vuich and Senator Newt Russell—Mr. Germane to colleagues—would halt the legislative process if a spot bill slipped by without a hearing.

Today's California Legislature may "wobble," Collin says, but it works.