"NOBODY REALLY CARES ABOUT THE PAST."
California Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla talks to PT about the worldview of a termed-out legislator. Is the final year full of sentimental goodbyes and freedom from political maneuvering? You might be surprised.
PT: After six years in the California Legislature, term limits are bringing your Assembly career to a close. How is that final term different?
Canciamilla: Well, everything moves very fast, and your last term arrives very quickly. Almost from the beginning of your first term, people begin to ask about your future plans, and that begins to pick up as you move through your time in the Legislature. In your last term it becomes even more of a focal point.
Two things happen. First, members start to ask themselves, " What am I going to do next? Where am I going to go? How am I going to find something else?" The other thing that happens is that the other members who are continuing—as well as the lobbyists and the interest groups—begin to discount your ability to really influence things. So, there's this very quick ebbing of interest in members that are termed out. And this begins without a great deal of subtlety.
PT: So, the relationships with your peers in the Legislature tend to change?
Canciamilla: I think there's a difference these days in relationships between members in general. There's a certain amount of loyalty and reliance that occurs within a class. All of us who came in at the same time have experienced the same challenges and fires together. That fosters mutual appreciation, but there's also a level of competition involved. There's a sense of disengagement too, where people realize, "Well, we're not going to be working together or seeing each other anymore." So, the dynamic does begin to change.
PT: What about relationships with leadership? Do they change as well?
Canciamilla: Yes, the leadership recognizes that you're still a member and you still have responsibilities, but their real focus shifts to who is coming in. Their goal is ultimately to keep power, and the only way to keep power is to keep the support of the caucus. The way to keep the support of the caucus is to pay attention to the incoming members and make sure they've got what they want and need.
PT: You're known as somewhat of an iconoclast in the Legislature normally, but do you feel any greater freedom in your final term to dismiss the politics in driving for or against issues?
Canciamilla: I think that would be your initial thought, and in a couple of cases that's probably true. But in most cases, it actually becomes measurably worse. In most instances, you're trying to figure out if you're going to run for something else, or you want a job somewhere, or an appointment or something. That means you have to forge alliances, and it can require you to put yourself out there even more than you might have otherwise.
It's interesting to watch, because that's exactly what I expected to say coming into this year. I expected to see people going out on term limits saying, "To heck with it—I'm done, and I'm not going to put up with this anymore. I'm going to do what I think is right." But I've found the calculating to be perhaps even more intense than it was before this year.
PT: Is there any influence on voting behavior since you know you won't have the chance to see bills again?
Canciamilla: Yes, I think that's correct for some members. For me it never mattered; it was either good or bad going in, especially at the end of a two-year session. But there's an interesting reality that sets in. You begin to recognize these little lessons that you tend to have not fully learned until you've been there a few years.
For example, the story we often hear is, "Just let me keep moving this flawed bill through and I'll fix it. I'll bring it back repaired!" Well, that's something we hear a great deal, but it's frequently untrue. You begin to realize that goodwill is often taken advantage of.
PT: Many have argued against term limits because they diminish the pool of institutional knowledge through high turnover. Are there safeguards in place to transfer that knowledge and ensure a smooth transition?
Canciamilla: In the current environment, no. There really isn't, because nobody really cares about the past. There's almost a disdain or irrelevance placed on members who are termed out. It's like, "OK, you've had your shot, now go away." There's not a great deal of store put into learning lessons, and I think that that's a major mistake. What I have seen—particularly as the Assembly has lost more senior staff—is that the behavior in the body deteriorates from one class to the next. And I mean that personally, professionally, from a policy standpoint and also with respect to the courtesies and traditions of the Assembly.
Each class loses a little bit. Some of the things that were held in great regard when I came into the Legislature are no longer even paid attention to. You see it especially in relation to gut-and-amends. Gut-and-amends were once only rarely used. Six years ago, you were taken aback by them. You thought, "Oh my gosh, this must be really important because they're having to do this." Now it's just standard operating procedure. At the end of a session it's just a free-for-all.
Here's the problem: bad behavior by the current class will be picked up by the incoming class, and they're not going to raise the quality of the legislative process a notch, they're going to lower it. Each time, things get a little more disorganized and a little worse. As this happens, staff members—with far less experience than staff members from the past—accumulate more power. The goal becomes to just "get things done," and that's a product of our failure to share and pass down information.
PT: That doesn't bode well for the future.
Canciamilla: No, it doesn't. We need to raise public awareness and the level of debate so that people can see just how dysfunctional the system really is. It's not simply about the escapades of the Legislature—it's about the failure of a major governmental institution to resolve problems.
PT: We speak to California legislators on both sides of the aisle who say very similar things about the dysfunctionality of the system. If it's a structural issue and not something rooted in partisan politics, why haven't reform advocates been able to make any headway?
Canciamilla: Well, keep in mind that there are people who are truly sincere about wanting to reform a broken system and there are those for whom it's just lip service. It's like bipartisanship. Four years ago, "bipartisanship" was a dirty word. Governor Schwarzenegger was able to bring the importance of bipartisanship to the public, and he created a dynamic in which bipartisanship was popular. Well, in legislative terms, it was popular only as a good sound bite. Now members like myself, Joe Nation, Keith Richman, Barbara Matthews and others are looking at ways that we can create some institutional change from the outside.
Many others inside the system don't care, however. They're there for their six years and they hope to accomplish something and that's it. Moreover, you have to recognize that the dysfunction is actually beneficial to many parties.
PT: A few months ago we highlighted your "Citizens' Assembly" bill and its prospects for government reform. Before we go, could you talk about its reception in the Legislature and in committee?
Canciamilla: It never got to committee. The rules of the Assembly require that every bill that is introduced is entitled to a hearing. The bill was introduced in January or February, but we never got a hearing. We sent e-mails and letters to the Speaker and the rules committee staff, but never received a reply. We were initially told that they weren't doing any ACAs yet, and then the clock just ran out.
That's part of the frustration. People will talk about how dysfunctional the system is and how we have to fix it, but every time we've introduced a bill or tried to change the rules and procedures, we can't even get to first base. They don't want that kind of openness, they don't want to give up that control, because control is power. Our experience with the citizens' assembly legislation is just emblematic of the problem. It demonstrates the difficulty of carrying out a real internal discussion about repairing the system. The sad part is that the public doesn't really care, and the political leaders recognize that. It makes it much easier then to dismiss ideas like redistricting, the citizens' assembly, open primaries, etc.
PT: Assemblyman, thank you for your time.
Joe Canciamilla represents the citizens of California's 11th Assembly District. He serves as chairman of the Assembly Select Committee on Growth and Infrastructure and as a member of the following Committees: Aging and Long-Term Care; Agriculture; Jobs, Economic Development and the Economy; Revenue and Taxation; and Veterans' Affairs.