The fact that California's dysfunctional government needs an overhaul doesn't make every proposed reform a good one, and one of the worst ideas is the one detailed by Harold Meyerson in his Aug. 21 Times Op-Ed article, "A one-house Legislature." Meyerson wants the Assembly and state Senate to merge into a single body, with each member representing smaller districts. This sounds simple, but the idea of a unicameral Legislature is a seemingly benign reform that would have unintended consequences.
It is a plausible idea, to be sure. As Meyerson details, before 1968 our Legislature more closely resembled the arrangement in the U.S. Senate and House. Assembly districts were drawn based on proportionate representation, while each county received no more than one state senator. At the time, Los Angeles County had the same representation in the state Senate as smaller counties. This changed following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1964 decision in Reynolds vs. Sims, which required that all state legislative districts be roughly equal in population. Today, California Senate districts are about twice as populous as Assembly districts.
Establishing a unicameral Legislature that has 120 members would allow each district to be smaller (about 300,000 residents) without adding a single elected official to legislative payroll. The thinking is that legislators would be more accessible to their constituents.
Here's the problem: Eliminating the checks and balances of separate deliberations on legislation in each house would result in a major loss of transparency. Merging the two chambers would seriously undermine the public's and media's efforts to blow the whistle on bad bills.
Currently, every bill gets a policy committee hearing in each house. The first hearing is often perfunctory, as committee members are inclined to give bill authors (their colleagues in the same house) the benefit of the doubt and move legislation along as "works in progress."
To make matters worse, the committees, especially in the Assembly, are so lopsided in partisan makeup that bills rarely get seriously debated. Because the passage of a bill out of committee is virtually certain in many cases, testimony often consists of a few witnesses on each side with little time to talk; many who show up to speak in support of or against legislation are prevented from doing anything other than identifying themselves and their organizations. Amendments can be adopted in concept before being written down, with little staff vetting.
In a one-house Legislature, those hearings would be the only deliberative process before the floor "debate" a couple of days later and the vote to send the legislation to the governor. In the two-house system, a bill has to go through the whole process again in the next house. New staff eyes (both Republican and Democratic) have to review it, and those who would be adversely affected by the bill get a chance to try to fine tune it or mount serious opposition.
Then there's the widely decried "gut and amend" strategy, in which at the end of the legislative session, a bill on one subject is effectively rewritten to address an entirely different matter. A perfunctory hearing is called "off the floor" with virtually no notice and the bill is rushed along for a vote by the entire chamber.
Bad as this is, at least a bad bill has to be voted on in two houses after further review, increasing the chances that the media or interest groups will blow the whistle. In a unicameral Legislature, only half that level of scrutiny would take place.
Are the smaller districts really worth it? They would be marginally better, but legislators would still be hard-pressed to make themselves accessible to constituents in a personal "town hall" kind of way. Three-hundred thousand residents are a lot of people, and the different chambers of commerce, Rotary Clubs, union halls, League of Women Voters chapters and veterans groups would be too numerous still to allow for personal appearances at every event. Let's face it: California will never be New Hampshire.
Many advocates of switching to a unicameral Legislature believe it is too hard to make new laws in California. But lots of laws (some would argue way too many) get made every year -- upward of 800 chaptered laws annually. Yes, there are high-profile deadlocks on important issues, such as prison reform and solving the water crisis. But these are not a function of bicameralism so much as a complete lack of consensus in California about some difficult issues.
In the rush to reform, we should be careful to figure out what problem we are trying to solve. A one-house Legislature is a solution to a gridlock problem that does not exist for most legislation. Untangling gridlock for bad bills is a fix we would regret.
Robert W. Naylor served in the California Assembly from 1978-86; he was the Republican minority leader from 1982-84.