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Send the legislators home at night

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Here's another Sacramento reform for the long "to do" list -- one that wouldn't require a vote of the people or even the governor's signature.

Prohibit the Legislature from voting on any bill after sunset. No exceptions -- and especially not a budget bill.

That's a reform the Legislature could enact itself and clearly should.

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.

The all-nighters are a relatively recent phenomenon in the Legislature. Lawmakers historically have labored late on the zoo-like last nights of legislative sessions but very rarely at any other time.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s and even into the 1980s, a budget was routinely scheduled for floor debate at a certain hour in the morning and legislators would pass it and be headed across the street for lunch by noon.

But in those days, the Legislature's budget committees drafted bipartisan spending plans that were further negotiated and refined in the two-house conference committee. It was a consensus product.

There weren't any Big Five private negotiations between the governor and the legislative leaders that left lawmakers essentially in the dark. These days, most legislators don't get their first glance at a budget until it pops up on the chamber floor the night they're expected to vote.

The Big Five is an abomination that began in earnest during the bad budget deficits of the early '90s but continued through the boom times, undermining the legislative committees and embittering non-leaders who felt ignored.

In the old days, legislators wouldn't have dreamed of spending the night -- let alone bar-closing time -- in a legislative chamber unless the annual session was about to adjourn. They'd be bonding in card games and in Capitol watering holes.

"It would have been an embarrassment" not to get their work done in the daytime, says former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a legislator for 31 years until he was elected mayor of San Francisco.

"Term limits has removed any semblance of leadership," Brown told me, but then immediately praised Bass for "rising to the occasion in terrible circumstances."

Today, he laments, "there's no trust and no confidence" among legislators because "they don't even know each other." So decision-making takes longer.

To be fair, budgets also needed only one "trailer" bill to enact policy changes until the 1980s, when the state Supreme Court ruled that a separate measure must be enacted for each policy subject. That made budgeting more complex. With record budget-cutting this year, there also was a record number of trailer bills.

But that's all the more reason to vote when wide awake. If a certain amount of rest is required for airline pilots, it also should be for lawmakers who make decisions affecting life, death and our money.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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