THE STATE : In Sacramento, Assembly Impasse Creates New Power Centers : Bipartisan power-sharing in the lower house will accelerate the political fission. It’s every politician for himself.
Power abhors a vacuum. This simple rule of political physics is at the heart of the debate over how to resolve the leadership stalemate paralyzing the California Assembly.
Following a 40-40 deadlock in the vote for Speaker, proposals are circulating to increase “bipartisan cooperation” by ceding much of the Speaker’s power to the major-party caucuses and to an enlarged Rules Committee. Whatever the Assembly’s restructuring, where will the Capitol’s new power centers be?
Look first to the state Senate. At the height of the Assembly impasse last week, one disgruntled reporter was heard to grouse, “I’m going over to the Senate. I’m going to watch a functioning house.” With the media’s attention riveted on the speakership war, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that legislative business is going on in the upper house.
Even without the Assembly’s current turmoil, in the post-Proposition 140 Legislature, power will likely shift from a less stable and experienced Assembly to the Senate, where members will likely have more experience than their lower-house colleagues and more time under term limits to make policy. Put another way, California may get a taste of what life would be like under a unicameral legislature--except that the Senate can’t unilaterally pass laws. In the short term, that will certainly curb the Senate’s ability to get things accomplished.
Historically, the Legislature has always had--and needed--an organizing force, because instability makes it difficult for a law-making body to function. The impetus to organize has sometimes come from inside the institution, through strong legislative leaders. On occasion, when the house leadership has been weak, it has come from outside, supplied by master lobbyists like Artie Samish or a forceful governor like Earl Warren.
Will Gov. Pete Wilson be another Warren in the absence of a strong Speaker? Will he be better able to decide the legislative agenda? When asked in a television interview, he replied, “I don’t know.” But he’s too politically astute not to have an inkling that his clout can increase in the wake of legislative term limits, a competitive reapportionment and voter anger with California lawmakers. He’s also savvy enough to understand the downside of diminished legislative leadership: It’s hard to push a policy agenda through a house with no one--or everyone--in charge. And Wilson knows he needs strong Assembly leaders, Republican and Democratic, to collect the 54 votes required to pass a budget
Could another Samish step into the vacuum? Probably not in today’s political environment. But as power in the Assembly diffuses, there will be some special interests that may find their influence enhanced. And there will be others, now key Sacramento players, who may suffer under a power-sharing regime.
In the longer run, interests seeking no action at all will be at the greatest advantage. With power fragmented and committees divided along partisan lines, it becomes easier to kill bills. Single-interest groups, already a factor in the destabilization of legislative coalitions, will gain clout at the expense of institutional groups with a continuing stake in a more predictable system.
The lone wolves and naysayers among Assembly members could also see their power magnified. Committee chairs may find themselves presiding over the political equivalent of a herd of cats, forced to come back to their membership again and again and deal for each vote.
“Empowering individual members” at the expense of a strong speakership is exactly what Assembly Republicans insist they want. That goal certainly appeals to newly elected legislators impatient to make an impact before their six years of service must end.
But the Assembly is already a entrepreneurial place, particularly for the Speaker and powerful committee chairs. Now, gloated one lawmaker, “term limits have made everybody a player.” Institutionalizing power-sharing would give these new entrepreneurs even more leverage. Party loyalty and organization will take the hits.
What’s unfolding in Sacramento--the realignment of the Assembly and the reinvention of its power structure--has been described as “cataclysmic change.” It may be more akin to nuclear fission. Power is fragmenting and moving every which way, and it will take time before everything comes to political rest.