YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

California's Legislature: More Than a Floor Show

LEGISLATING FOR AMERICA: In this fourth article in an occasional series on the legislative process, Robert Conot focuses on the California Legislature and three of its members from the Ventura County-San Fernando Valley area where he lives.

August 24, 1986|Robert Conot | Robert Conot is a political journalist and author who has spent seven months studying the legislative process

THOUSAND OAKS — "Hey feller, don't stand there talking to yourself. If you're crazy, come join the Legislature," quick-witted and abrasive Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne) calls out to a TV cameraman on the periphery of the Assembly floor. At the rear row of desks, the comic antics of 36-year-old Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D-Montebello) have three fellow lawmakers--Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) and Thomas H. Bates (D-Oakland) cracking up.

"Come on, let's go, I want to get out of here," a legislator, anxious to catch the early Thursday afternoon flight to his district, demands like a student squirming at his desk.

Can this be the California Legislature, reputed to be the best organized, most efficient, highest quality state legislative body in the nation?

"Most people are appalled by the floor sessions," commented State Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara). "The Assembly reminds me of a junior high school at recess. The Senate has the air of a convalescent home."

The reality is that floor sessions, whether in the U.S. Congress or in a state legislature, tend to consist of voting, posturing and socializing in about equal measure. The floor is the place where lawmakers utter statements to impress their constituents, not to influence their fellow legislators--debate seldom affects votes. The floor also serves as a legislative coffeehouse, where members exchange information, lobby one another and gossip. While the floor sessions of the California Legislature are a model of efficiency compared with those of Congress, the fact remains that from January through May, the twice-weekly meetings are designed as much to enable state legislators to collect their $75-a-day per diem seven days a week as to conduct business. It's only from June through August, when the budget and most of the thousands of bills emerge from the bowels of the committees, that the sessions take on a more intense character.

In contrast to Congress, which is dominated by lawyers, the Legislature is composed of a cross section of the middle class, and reflects middle-class values. There are no bakers and no butchers; but beyond the 44 members who list themselves as full-time legislators, no fewer than two dozen professions are represented. Most numerous are attorneys (21) and businessmen (14), followed by ranchers, farmers, educators and insurance brokers (some half-dozen each). Such professionals as a banker, a doctor, a dentist, a veterinarian, an accountant and a contractor make the Legislature the essence of a self-contained community. There's even a geologist--he'd be helpful, no doubt, in drafting no-fault insurance.

A legislator doesn't have great visibility. The average person has difficulty recalling who his assemblyman or state senator is. By and large, the media doesn't pay the Legislature the attention it deserves; with the exception of tax law, it is state legislation, not federal, that has the greater impact on people's everyday lives. With some exceptions, the quality of state legislators compares favorably with that of congressmen; and one can argue that the heterogeneity on the state level is more democratic and effective than the pin-striped conformity of the U.S. Senate.

The Assembly represents the entry level to professional politics, as distinguished from the part-time politics practiced by most local civic bodies. The typical assemblyman, in his mid-40s, about 10 years younger than a state senator, has served an apprenticeship on a city council, school board or similar body. In his third or fourth term, he is looking to move on: to the state Senate, to Congress, to other high office, or to a lucrative career as a lobbyist. No more than a handful have as much as 13 years service--which is the median for a state senator. Although Republicans and Democrats may disagree vehemently with one another in public, the hallmark of the successful legislator is the ability to make friends and influence fellow lawmakers, whatever their political perspective, behind the scenes. The strident ideologue who harasses and embarrasses fellow members, or the legislative gadfly, who introduces scores of "ego bills" that have little substantive value, are ineffective.

A case in point is provided by the Senate Education Committee. Hart, the chairman, is the archetype of the Vietnam-era rebel matured into the 1980s laid-back liberal. Ed Davis (R-Chatsworth), a committee member, is the gruff former Los Angeles police chief whose political philosophy is the diametric opposite of Hart's. Yet in 1983 they cooperated to produce the most significant education bill since the 1960s.

Los Angeles Times Articles