Being that the latest denunciation of corruption in the California Legislature comes from a federal judge, this may not be the best time to submit a small "not guilty" plea.
Actually, it's more like "guilty with an explanation." Whatever the name, the point is that today's form of legislative corruption--the wholesale favoritism shown to big contributors--is not the product of greed alone.
Instead, it's a problem in the system--the result of political changes that have been occurring over many years. By looking at it this way, the path toward reform becomes a little clearer.
Before continuing, and for the sake of those who hadn't heard, let me repeat some of what U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian of Los Angeles has said.
Tevrizian is the one who sentenced Bruce Young to 18 months in prison after a jury found the former Assembly member guilty of various sleazy deeds during an eight-year legislative career.
According to the news accounts, the judge was asked what he learned during Young's trial. His reply was that the California Legislature is becoming the best that money can buy.
"They wouldn't know a conflict (of interest) if it stared them in the face," he said.
The judge is not alone. Many others have been saying much the same thing for months, even years. In a report 18 months ago the California Commission on Campaign Financing said that legislators are afflicted with a "fund-raising fever" that distorts many aspects of the political process.
The commission was talking about money that lawmakers collect from special interests to spend on their political campaigns. Young, on the other hand, took money from special interests and kept it for himself.
Young's action probably was an exception. Most of the money
grubbing at the Capitol is for campaign funds. Indeed, some contend that Young, a boyish-looking man, was himself corrupted by Sacramento's moral (or immoral) code concerning campaign cash: Get as much as you can.
The reason that legislators need so much money, of course, is to get and keep their jobs. Any candidate who is significantly outspent by an opponent isn't likely to win.
As a result, candidates must constantly seek cash from those who have it to give: corporations, professional groups, labor unions and other such special interests. And, if they want to keep getting the money, most of them must occasionally--at least--give something in return.
But why do they need so much? Money always has been part of political campaigns, but never in the amounts being recorded over the last decade or so. In its report, the Commission on Campaign Financing noted that campaign costs rose 3,100% in the years between 1958 and 1984, from $1.4 million to $44.8 million. Spending on last year's legislative elections, $57.1 million, added another 27%.
In my opinion, legislative candidates need so much money--most of which goes for television and/or direct mail--because they have lost, or are losing, the other forms of political job protection that used to be theirs.
Take, for instance, party loyalty. It used to be that a candidate could count on getting nearly all of his or her party's vote in any particular election. But voters have become increasingly finicky over the years, and are paying less and less attention to party labels. Since the second Administration of Edmund G. Brown Jr., the lieutenant governor has been from a different party than the governor. Candidates simply cannot rely on party support as they did in the past. Inevitably, they want more money for TV and mail.
Or consider reapportionment, that once-in-a-decade process for cementing legislators into their jobs. The artful drawing of district boundaries still provides a measure of job security, but with far less reliability than before.
The reason, of course, is the courts, which have been chipping at the process since Baker vs. Carr (one man, one vote) in 1962. The California Supreme Court actually reapportioned the Legislature in the 1970s. And though the 1980s reapportionment was done by the Legislature itself, the action has been challenged and is still before the courts.
Only last July the U.S. Supreme Court introduced another element of uncertainty into the process with a ruling that in effect creates still another legal avenue for challenging legislative reapportionments.
Obviously the court is acting in behalf of good government. Who would deny that reapportionment should give the public better representation and not provide benefits for the representatives themselves?
Nevertheless, the result of these changes is uncertainty and a resultant itch in the Legislature for cash.
The same sort of thing might be said about "patronage," or the right of legislators to make wholesale appointments to state jobs. No matter what anyone thinks of the practice, it protects legislators by providing each with a small army of supporters to work in his or her campaign.