Policy Today magazine cover
October 5, 2005

"Legislators come to the Capitol wanting to do the right things, but the system is so broken, it's tough for people to continue on that path."

California Assemblyman Joe Nation (D-San Rafael) highlights a painful reality for many elected officials, both in Sacramento and in Washington. Although good intentions get the boat in the water, they are rarely enough to keep it afloat in the choppy waters of legislative politics. "If you want to get along, go along," legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn once advised his younger Congressional colleagues. This begs the average citizen's question, "where are we getting along to, and why doesn't my representative go along with what I feel is important?"

 If the system is as broken as Assemblyman Nation suggests—and he's not alone among both Prop. 77 advocates and critics alike—is redistricting the fix? Or is it elsewhere in the republican model? Regardless of the answer, is a vote against gerrymandering the right place to start?

Straddling the line

Many voters fault elected officials for trying to hold too many positions at once. But when a newly elected representative comes into office, he or she must forge a wide range of alliances in order to pursue the district agenda. This in itself creates a level of tension. "This is what motivates good legislators," says California State Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach). "That's why they chose to do this."

A freshman legislator—regardless of his or her agenda—invariably strides onto the political stage to a chorus of requests and demands. It can be difficult for politicians—rookies and veterans alike—to keep their eye on the ball, especially in a detached political environment created by uncompetitive elections and a disinterested electorate. When this happens, pressures from the top (e.g. party structure and legislative process), and the sides (e.g. special interest groups and lobbyists), often collide with those from the base of the electoral pyramid, i.e. constituents.

"Currently, there are individuals in the legislature who are controlled by one or two special interest groups that control very large sums of money," says Assemblyman Bill Maze (R-Visalia). "But are people apathetic because of what's happening, or is it happening because people are apathetic? It's the chicken and the egg."

Politics is a people business

The structure of the system requires legislators to establish a rapport with the people who will help them push their agenda. For a first-term representative, this can be a double-edged sword. Some get trapped in the bureaucracy early, while others never establish the connections necessary for success.

"As a freshman, you realize how fast you have to start building relationships in order to advance your own agenda," explains Assemblyman Michael Villines (R-Fresno). "You have to remember what you ran for and start making relationships right away, otherwise you can't accomplish anything." State Senator Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach) agrees that collegial relationships are imperative, but points to pitfalls when these relationships become mired in the status quo.

"Sometimes the inability to solve problems or be effective has nothing to do with partisan differences or special interests, but everything to do with the inability to change a particular mindset," says Bowen. "Far too often, the mindset in the bureaucracy is 'we've always done it this way,' and trying to change it is like trying to turn a battleship around in a bathtub."

Drowning in a sea of legislation

Freshman legislators have much to do and more to learn when they arrive for their first day in the office. When special interests and lobbyists rush the front door, it's easy for constituent demands to take a back seat. A disconnected electorate only intensifies this effect. "Special interest groups have largely filled the vacuum that has been created by voter apathy," says Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge).

In their defense, special interests and lobbyists aren't always bad. Many are experts in their field and supply valuable information for inexperienced legislators who must learn on their feet. Although most people criticize lobbyists for their agendas, one of their more negative traits may be the sheer volume of legislation they inspire.

"When you walk into the legislature, you think, 'Wow, I can introduce 45 bills in the next two years?'" says Nation. "But these fill up very fast because lobbyists are there day and night and they make compelling cases." Whether it is the result of inexperience or deference, the volume of legislation bogs down an already suspect committee process and spreads legislators' focus thin. "I think it would be a good idea to limit it to 20 bills in a two-year session—10 bills each year," says Villines. "It would make people focus and it would make their bills stronger."

Where do things break down?

Although politics is about people, those people have to work through a system that can be
both arcane and frustrating to legislators on both sides of the isle. "I think there's almost too much structure," says Nation. "I believe that people enter government with good intentions, but the rigid structures sometime make it difficult to maintain focus.” Villines echoes similar themes, but cites specific elements of the process. "The place where things break down is in the committee process," says Villines. He points to the fact that that the minority party in many committees often finds itself down four or five members.

"I have found people in both parties to be very reasonable," continues Villines. "There are a lot of good, rational people within the legislature who look at issues based on the merits, but you lose a lot of that in the current committee structure because you have no chance to spur a productive debate. The majority party deserves their votes on the floor; they've earned them. But issues need to be hashed out in the committees, and when they're so uneven, that doesn't happen."

The committee process is not the only place where good policy breaks down. Assemblyman Jerome Horton (D-Inglewood) echoes Bowen in his appraisal of legislators who get locked into a certain mindset. Horton goes further in illustrating the point with respect to its structural foundations. "At a certain point, different caucuses began to form along rifts within the Democratic Party; legislators' allegiance to their caucus became almost paramount," explains Horton. "This is when the breakdown started, because people started to vote for legislation they knew was flawed with no real intent to try to fix it, just to preserve their relationships and associations. The system stopped being methodical and knowledge-based."

At the end of the day, the obstacles legislators encounter are exacerbated by the type of representative the structure produces. Redistricting promises to address issues of accountability and effectiveness, but will it deal with the issues of method and knowledge raised by Assemblyman Horton?

A methodical approach to policymaking stems from shared goals, something that isn't always present under the current system. "Noncompetitive races result in intensely partisan viewpoints," explains Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge). "This makes the debate at the state level into a clash of extremes." Even a political outsider could agree that a clash of extremes is diametrically opposed to the concept of a well-oiled policymaking machine. "It makes it difficult to achieve consensus, and therefore difficult to progress," says Nation.

Not enough time

"People aren't afraid to tackle the hard issues because they're worried about losing their next election," says Bowen. "They're reluctant because they can't see victory in such a short time horizon." Indeed, term limits have proven to be a formidable foe for legislators with long-term policy visions. Two-year terms mean that reelection drives begin after an incumbent's first year in office. Limited to three terms, elected officials are often pressed into reactive decisions instead of active ones, responding to individual crises in the short term at the expense of visionary policy over time.

Furthermore, term limits drain the Legislature's knowledge pool by about 30% every two years. Besides diminishing the overall level of experience, senior legislators are occasionally forced to shift into a lower gear while the newcomers play catch up. As a result, legislators develop less institutional memory and diminished understanding of their oversight tasks and objectives. "It would be one thing if we were all elected in the year 2006 and stayed until the year 2012," explains Nation. "It's almost unimaginable that people are sometimes put into committees where they might not have a tremendous amount of expertise and then pulled out two years later. But that's the current system."

When Mr. Smith comes home…

When Representative Smith goes to Sacramento (or Washington), he or she runs a gauntlet of competing demands and pressures. Between campaign promises and interest groups, party structure and rubber-stamp committees, and under the shot clock of term limits, legislators are squeezed from all sides. With Congressional salaries starting at $158,100 and costing upwards of $2 million to win, can we blame our elected officials for wanting a little job security? The question, though, is at what cost?

About Frank Holland

Frank Holland is Policy Today's managing editor.