Big trouble in Little Hoover

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Some governmental chores are so sacred they can be entrusted only to people or institutions of intellectual rigor and unquestioned integrity. Or at least with the veneer of rigor and integrity. It’s comforting to believe there is someone, somewhere, so completely beyond reproach that the very notion that experience or point of view could affect their judgment is unthinkable.

Political figures don’t usually fall into this category. They belong to parties, and thus are partisan, and thus have judgment clouded by a certain adversarial bent. Americans elect the best person they can think of to be their president but don’t generally consider their choice to be the paragon of clear-thinking moral fiber. Clear-thinking, maybe, or moral, but seldom both. President Bush, for example. Elected president, twice—well, let’s leave it at elected president—but probably not the first choice for voters searching for someone to redraw disrrict lines, say, or count ballots. President Clinton (Bill Clinton, to clarify)? Smart, yes. Above reproach? The whole being impeached thing comes into play.

The last president, perhaps, to be considered of sufficient intelligence and uprightness to handle a task as important as drawing legislative and congressional boundaries—with no slight intended to Abraham Lincoln, who was a great leader but was hated so much by nearly half his states that they tried to leave town—was George Washington. He could not, apparently, tell a lie, even if it meant getting spanked for chopping down his father’s cherry tree, something he surely did only with good cause. He was the father of his country. Although there may have been some kind of problem about slaves.

The only people capable of inspiring enough confidence to make decisions about politics are those with the least possible connection to the political world. Do you trust the Federal Election Commission? Of course not. It deals with elections. How about the California Fair Political Practices Commission? That’s iffy. It’s got “political” right there in the title. But it’s also got “fair.” So maybe it’s a push. One proposal for reforming the way California draws its political districts is to hand the task to the FPPC or, even better, to good, real, honest people selected by the FPPC.

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to reform districting he went with the tried and true: judges. They wear black robes, for heaven’s sake. Everything they do is about fairness and justice. But since any one of them could end up hearing an election case, the governor went a step further: retired judges. Not only without motivation to cheat, but without motivation to care. Some Democrats complained when it came to their attention that most retired judges in California are old, white male Republicans. But they’re judges, Schwarzenegger’s people insisted. It still didn’t wash. Which may be a good thing, in the eyes of those of us who spent many years reporting on courts and judges. Judges, it turns out, look like a special breed of even-handed superhuman intellectual giants only from a considerable distance.

So we are back to institutions. How about a grand jury? Good, but go one better. How about the Little Hoover Commission?

You’ve heard of it, although you’re not quite sure where. You have no idea who is on it, and no idea what they do. But you kind of think they maybe once had something to do with ending corruption. They’re perfect.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez has been grappling with pressure from Republicans, from Schwarzenegger and from good government groups... Wait. Good government groups. They sound good, too, in case Little Hoover doesn’t work out. But anyway. Nuñez has been fighting pressure from many quarters to relinquish the political parties’ lock on district boundary-drawing. Last week he offered to give the job to the Little Hoover Commission—which, to end your suspense, is one of those storied citizen commissions that is absolutely beyond reproach, as long as you don’t look too closely. It sounds like it may have been established in the 1930s by J. Edgar Hoover and has been quietly fighting corruption ever since. It’s the Untouchable commission. But why “Little”? Maybe, after all, it’s named for one of the Our Gang kids. Shouldn’t redistricting be a job for the Big Hoover commission?

The panel, it turns out, is named after something that’s named after the Commission on Organization on the Executive Branch of the Government, a panel set up in 1947 by Harry Truman and chaired by former President Herbert Hoover (who was not, apparently, known around the Capitol as “Big Hoover”). The commission’s task was to recommend restructuring of federal agencies and cabinet departments. A few years later, Congress established a second Hoover commission, known as the Second Hoover Commission.

A few years after that, California set up a similar group and with bashful deference called it the Little Hoover Commission. Unlike its seniors, it has been around nonstop since 1962, overseeing state government functions and producing lots and lots of reports. Five members are appointed by the governor, two by Assembly Speaker Nuñez—hey, what a coincidence—and two by the Senate Rules Committee. Plus two sitting state senators and two sitting Assembly members appointed by—but you’ve already guessed.

They’re a fine bunch of people. Really. And the fact that they are politicians or political appointees doesn’t make them a more corrupt or untrustworthy class of person than anyone else. But the goal is to sever the link between parties and elected officials, on the one hand, and the people who make decisions about drawing the lines on the other. George Washington is gone, as are Lincoln, Hoover and Truman, and no person or institution is inherently so laden with integrity that they become the easy and obvious choice to do the (frankly boring) job. The line-drawers have to be independent, structurally as well as institutionally.

Some reformers want a citizens group, drafted by lot, selected by county registrars, to be the redistricting panel, and while that idea isn’t perfect, it at least removes the partisan elected officials from the process. The Little Hoover idea is an interesting addition to the mix, but no more so than, say, the FPPC or the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board. Hey, come to think of it ...

Robert Greene is a member of The Times’ editorial board.