A History Lesson on Part-Time Lawmaking

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior scholar in the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC and a political analyst for KNBC.

In November 1966, Californians elected Ronald Reagan governor, giving him 57% of the vote. Less remembered is how overwhelmingly they approved Proposition 1A, a sweeping government reform package whose centerpiece was a full-time Legislature. Some 73.5% of voters backed the proposition’s constitutional amendments, which were endorsed by both Reagan and then-Gov. Pat Brown.

Today, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is threatening to support an initiative that would return the Legislature to part-time status. Anti-tax activist Ted Costa and his political group, People’s Advocate -- a force behind the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis -- have begun collecting signatures for such an initiative. Its success could depend on Schwarzenegger. “If he decided ‘I am sick and tired, I am going to support this,’ ” said Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies, “then it really could happen.”

As someone who went to Sacramento in 1966 to help build the staff of California’s new, professional Legislature, I have a little history lesson for our novice governor.

From its admission to the Union in 1850 until Proposition 1A passed, California’s Legislature met part time. By the 1960s, however, it was increasingly in session long after the constitutional deadline for adjournment; special session after special session was called to deal with burgeoning and complex policy issues.

Jesse Unruh, then the Assembly speaker, spearheaded the reform drive. Proposition 1A, Unruh contended, would institutionalize a de facto full-time Legislature and give it the authority to meet its responsibilities and the resources necessary to exercise that authority.


By offering legislators a full-time job with a full-time salary, Unruh hoped to steer them away from conflicts of interest inherent in outside employment and to make lawmakers less dependent on lobbyists’ largess -- and more beholden to him. It didn’t hurt that the Legislature, with its new status, would also gain increased clout in its relations with the governor.

That’s what the system of checks and balances is all about. But Schwarzenegger, bruised in the recently concluded budget battle, appears to be impatient with process. He seems more comfortable with the art of the quick deal than with the taffy pull of lawmaking.

In demanding instant legislative gratification, Schwarzenegger is a governor for our times. He mirrors the mind-set of voters accustomed to watching the most horrendous crimes solved in an hour, minus the commercials. After all, this is a man who routinely saved the whole world in two hours or so.

Schwarzenegger’s desire to streamline government -- especially to his advantage -- is the guiding principle of the just-released recommendations of the California Performance Review, a report from a panel he assembled to “blow up the boxes” of state government and restructure the way it does business. The 2,500-page package of reforms clearly shifts power from the Legislature to the governor; it cuts regulatory posts and abolishes 118 citizens’ commissions and boards, among other things.

There is value in reorganizing or eliminating duplicative and outmoded governmental bodies. But such downsizing needs to be carefully deliberated.

Lopping off boards and commissions would certainly erase some cushy political patronage slots, as the governor says. But it could also result in less oversight of and citizen participation in the workings of state government.

The proponents of a part-time Legislature say it would return the state’s professional lawmakers to the status of “citizen-legislators.” California’s draconian term limits were already supposed to have accomplished that. Instead, they have fueled a perpetual game of musical chairs among professional politicians.

Similarly, there’s no assurance that a part-time “citizen legislature” would be more reflective of -- or responsive to -- the state’s diverse population. Before Proposition 1A, the Legislature was heavily populated by lawyers and others whose occupations were flexible enough -- or their bank accounts fat enough -- to allow them to take months off from their real jobs.

Even if a part-time Legislature were reestablished, serial special sessions might add up to a full-time one. Alternatively, lawmakers could take the offensive and acknowledge that “full time” need not mean full time in Sacramento and might schedule more district time and legislative hearings outside the Capitol, a regular occurrence in the 1960s.

As Schwarzenegger is learning, divided government has its own problems regardless of the Legislature’s standing. The budget still requires a two-thirds vote for approval, and there’s little indication that voters support a change. Term limits have undermined strong legislative leadership and made long-term planning nearly impossible. Money is still “the mother’s milk of politics,” for both the governor and legislators. Status quo reapportionment and closed primaries will sustain partisan polarization no matter how long the Legislature stays in session. Who’s to say less, rather than more, can be accomplished with a tighter deadline if lawmakers are immobilized by ideological differences?

Schwarzenegger may want to protect his business buddies by eviscerating this Democrat-controlled Legislature, but can he guarantee that it won’t be hijacked by, say, labor? What about future governors? Does anybody believe that trial lawyers won’t get their way with a Gray Davis as governor, even with a weak, part-time Legislature? Or that lobbyists’ clout would diminish when part-time lawmakers don’t have the time or staff to work legislation but advocates do?

And what about Schwarzenegger’s concern for making California a more business-friendly state? In the wake of recent corporate scandals, one of the reforms was the creation of stronger boards of directors, whose members would be more engaged and more independent of management. Schwarzenegger isn’t running a corporation, but he and state lawmakers are setting policy for the sixth-largest economy in the world. And that too requires a strong and independent board of directors.

The California Performance Review lauds Schwarzenegger’s “vision of a more stable and accessible government.” The governor can’t hope to implement that vision by using his star quality to push quick fixes and terminating his partners in policymaking.

There’s speculation that the governor’s flirtation with a part-time Legislature is merely a tactic to leverage lawmakers’ support for his panel’s recommendations to streamline government.

But if Schwarzenegger really thinks that returning to a part-time Legislature would end Sacramento’s ills -- and alleviate his frustration with the messiness of democratic governance -- I’ve got some beachfront property in Kansas I’d like to sell him.