Send the legislators home at night
Votes -- especially votes on budget bills -- need the full light of day.
Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) rubs his eyes and yawns while talking with Sen. Christine Kehoe (D- San Diego) during the overnight session. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press / July 23, 2009)
Prohibit the Legislature from voting on any bill after sunset. No exceptions -- and especially not a budget bill.
Knock off these incessant all-nighters that increasingly have become a mainstay of the Sacramento playbook. They look juvenile and, I suspect, heap more public ridicule on the once-proud institution.
Worse, the no-slumber parties often result in rushed, reckless lawmaking.
One can only imagine the glitches and screw-ups hidden in the roughly 30 bills the Legislature passed in its sleepless stupor over a 20-hour period that began about 7 p.m. Thursday and didn't conclude until the Assembly shut down around 3 p.m. Friday. The Senate had adjourned at 6:30 a.m. as sunlight began flooding the Capitol, jarring lawmakers back into the real world.
The Senate's departure angered Assembly Republicans, who had expected the "upper chamber" to remain in session so it could renegotiate some controversial bills. That led to the Assembly's scuttling of a measure to raid nearly $1 billion of local transportation funds, a significant piece of the $26-billion deficit reduction package.
The Assembly session must have been the longest all-nighter in California legislative history. The few I recall, at least, ended shortly after sunup.
The theory is that sleep deprivation and exhaustion will pressure legislators into submission, a legislative equivalent of torture. Desperate for a hot shower and soft bed, they'll finally agree to vote for the convoluted agreement negotiated by their leaders and the governor.
"The truth of the matter," says Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), "is that you need to feel a sense of tension and pressure to gain the last votes on very difficult issues. There's a psychology to this. . . .
"You have to be together over many, many hours. You have to go through some low points before you can get to the high points. If you break it up too much, when it comes to the end, it's too easy to fall apart. If we'd done the 8 to 5 thing over two or three days, maybe we would have gotten the bills, maybe not."
Steinberg spoke to me while battling to keep his eyes open after 36 hours without sleep.
After a night's rest, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) put it this way Saturday: "When you have a deal, you need to vote on it. Because every interest group around is lobbying people. . . .
"If people feel they can take their time and wander back to their offices and go to the nearest restaurant, there's no pressure."
Exhaustion also speeds up the legislative process, she adds, because "not so many people feel they need to make speeches."
That's an understatement. Many substantive bills flew through the legislative chambers Thursday night and Friday morning with barely a murmur from legislators, except for voice votes in the Senate.
Legislators spent much of their time waiting for staffers to catch up with the bill-writing or attending ceaseless party caucuses.
Bass says lack of the necessary paperwork is why the two houses didn't even begin meeting until Thursday evening.
But that would have been a good reason to hold off meeting until the next morning, after a good night's sleep. Legislators might have concurred if they had seen and heard themselves in the wee hours, looking like zombies and sounding rummy.