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All Californians Are Victims of ‘Sting’ as the State’s Legislative System Falters

<i> Sherry Bebitch Jeffe writes on issues of California state government and politics. </i>

Whether convictions or even indictments result from the recent FBI “sting” aimed at the state Legislature, one thing is clear: “Operation Brispec” (for bribery special interest) underscores the breakdown of California’s legislative system.

In 1966, Jesse M. Unruh, then Speaker of the Assembly, pushed for reform; he called legislative independence a “three-legged stool"--adequate compensation, access to information free of special-interest “spin” provided by a professional legislative staff and independence from the demands of campaign financing.

We got two out of three. Independence from campaign financing was never achieved, but the other two legs were put firmly in place. Two decades have taken a toll, however: The legs have rotted through and now may have collapsed for good.

Critics say runaway campaign spending was the major culprit in the sting. But it is too easy to think the system of campaign finance by itself created the aura of corruption surrounding Sacramento.

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The modern California Legislature has made lawmaking a full-time occupation at less than professionally competitive compensation. The current salary for Senate and Assembly members, $37,105 plus $87 per diem for expenses, is not adequate to ensure a lawmaker’s monetary independence. But the public has been reluctant to give them more money.

Honorariums--fees paid for speeches or public appearances--have been used by lawmakers as a legal means to augment salaries. Last year legislators were paid collectively about $735,000 in honorariums--with more than a fifth of that going to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown ($132,563) of San Francisco and Senate President pro tem David Roberti ($33,300) of Los Angeles.

Brispec has brought into focus the question of the “buying power” of honorariums in the legislative process. Are such sums simply payment for speeches or are they used as political payoffs?

Proposition 73, passed in June, placed limits on honorariums, indicating some public concern over their use as fees for political favors granted. Whether evidence from the sting corroborates that perception or not, clearly the concept of an adequate legislative salary needs to be re-examined in the light of increased legislative responsibilities, time demands and a more high-powered political and economic environment.

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From the standpoint of legislative reform, the most discouraging aspect of the sting is the question raised about professional legislative staffing. Unruh saw professional help as a tool to improve and strengthen the Legislature. The role of staff was to assist legislators in making policy decisions independent of both the executive and special interests and to provide a buffer between legislators and lobbyists.

But the emergence of current and former legislative aides as key figures in the FBI probe of political corruption has shown how a staff organized to protect legislators from special interests can be co-opted by those interests.

Staff power is a function of increased control over legislation. When lawmakers abrogate their responsibility for policy formulation and oversight in order to spend more time and effort on their political survival, day-to-day legislating falls to their staffs. And because the professional survival of even so-called “policy staffers"--committee consultants and legislative experts--depends on the ability of their individual bosses to stay in office, many aides have become as concerned as their bosses with the need to raise money from the special interests whose fate they influence every legislative day.

Loyalty to the legislative institution-- the cornerstone of Unruh’s system of staffing--has increasingly been replaced by loyalty to personal and political goals.

Whatever the final resolution of legal questions raised by the FBI probe, Californians can learn some important lessons.

First, the road to reform, like the one to hell, is paved with good intentions. Sure-fire solutions to problems can create new problems.

The California Legislature became a full-time body and its sessions were extended to two years to allow for more thorough deliberation on bills; deadlines were established to prevent the chaos of a last-minute logjam of legislation. But more time meant more legislation and more deadlines meant more opportunities for procrastination. Bills involved in the FBI sting passed with little scrutiny, ripples in a flood of last-minute legislation.

“Professionalization” of the legislative process was supposed to have led to better policy--and for a time it did. But then the policy stakes and the rewards of legislative service increased, leading to the dominance of politics over policy, as elected and appointed politicians struggled to maintain power and position.

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California is not alone. Other states that share legislative characteristics--higher salary levels, more time spent in legislative session and the perception by legislators that lawmaking is a full-time job--share the drawbacks.

This leads to the second lesson offered by recent events in Sacramento: How well a system works depends, to a large extent, on the people who inhabit that system. Leaders, legislators and staff are all responsible for handling the public trust--to develop public policy fairly, honestly and effectively. When anybody ignores that responsibility, even the best system can falter.

So what does work? Some critics suggest that going back to a part-time Legislature is the only solution to the problems of power and corruption in Sacramento. The less time legislators spend in the Capitol, they argue, the better for good government.

But that’s not a realistic proposal for a state as large and complex as California, where problems and programs require full-time concern. Should we leave the full-time professional staff in place while returning our elected officials to amateur status? Someone has to oversee the legislative workload of this mammoth state and take responsibility for it. Will it be an unelected bureaucracy or elected representatives, who are--in theory, anyway--directly accountable to their constituents?

Some have suggested that we do what has been done elsewhere in the wake of government scandal: “Throw the rascals out!” But it isn’t always easy to separate the rascals from the honest politicians trying to do their best in a flawed system.

How then do voters deal with incumbents who have stayed too long in office to be responsive or effective? Or who have become corrupt--too powerful, too isolated? Should there be a limit on the number of terms (or years) an elected official can serve in any one office? Can a legislator develop policy expertise on deadline? Do long-term incumbents have a greater impact on policy? Can anyone predict the trade-offs of legislative turnover?

What is needed is not piecemeal reform, but an overall re-evaluation of the legislative institution. Perhaps that can be accomplished by re-establishing a blue-ribbon constitutional-revision commission, similar to the one that led to the broad state constitutional reforms passed 22 years ago.

As this state and its problems grow more complex, so do its governmental institutions. The task is to restructure the system to fit reality: Californians must consider a comprehensive approach to a problem that is crippling the political process--the corrosive influence of money.

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In a 1960 article in the Reader’s Digest, Unruh, as the anonymous “Assemblyman X,” argued for reform. “Some of the measures may be arguable,” he said. “But it’s time that some questions were raised--and answers found. Whoever pays the tab is likely to get the power. It’s time voters did both.”

Unruh is still right.


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