Two things have occurred in recent years that help explain why the state Legislature now finds itself rife with tension over allegations of bribes and payoffs involving Orange County businessman W. Patrick Moriarty.
First, the huge amounts of money being spent on state legislative campaigns have tended to blur the distinction between right and wrong--and between bills that are passed on merit alone and bills that are tied to campaign contributions and other favors.
Second, the Legislature has evolved over the last 20 years from a part-time collection of amateur politicians into a full-time collection of political professionals for whom politics is an end in itself and whose primary goal is staying in office.
The two are closely intertwined.
This newer and younger breed of lawmaker, especially dominant in the Assembly, has brought to the job a heightened sense of partisan awareness, which in turn has created an environment in which political careers frequently take precedence over public policy. Many in this corps of professionals moved up from the ranks of legislative staff.
Preoccupation with reelection is evident in the number of fund-raisers that are held here in both election years and non-election years, and the disproportionate influence on legislation of special interests that buy the tickets to those fund-raisers.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission recently estimated that more than $50 million was spent on legislative races last year. Twenty-five years ago, an equal number of candidates spent $1.3 million in their campaigns.
"Legislatures are becoming much more electorally focused, much more concerned with election and getting reelected," Alan Rosenthal, a specialist on state governments and a political scientist and director of the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University, said in a recent interview. "Democrats want to make sure of retaining control; Republicans want to gain control.
Emphasis on Winning
"Electoral considerations are becoming much more prominent. There is much more emphasis on winning power than using power.
"One thing about citizen-legislators. Maybe their egos depended on being reelected, but their financial security didn't. They could go back and practice law or sell insurance. But the full-time politician hasn't got anything else. Not only ego but financial livelihood depends on reelection."
These factors--the new breed of political pros and the insidious influence of money on the political process--are compounded now by the absence of any strong ideological currents in the Legislature. With no great reform movements under way, an inordinate amount of time is spent on money-producing bills such as the one in 1983 written to give podiatrists the right to treat the ankle.
Typical of legislation that pits competing and well-financed interests against each other, the bill finally passed after the California Orthopedic Assn., which favored it, and the California Medical Assn., which opposed it, had given a combined $180,000 in off-year campaign contributions.
To be sure, there probably has not been a time in its history when the California Legislature has been entirely free of the hint of scandal or its members have not been in pursuit of campaign money, even during that period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it was being hailed as the best and most efficient legislative body in the country.
There were, are and probably always will be rogues, rascals and opportunists among its 120 members--80 in the Assembly and 40 in the Senate--and it would be fair to say that most lawmakers are as concerned as the public about such behavior. But a laissez faire attitude seems to have taken hold here now, which inevitably leads to problems.
And there is always somebody wanting something from state government and willing to tap whatever human weakness necessary to get it.