The California Legislature adjourns today, ending a session filled with enough turmoil, back-stabbing and cliffhangers for an Aaron Spelling soap opera. The melodrama ran especially thick in the Assembly, where new lows in statesmanship seemed to be reached every week. Doris Allen's memorable line before her resignation as Speaker--"Do I let a group of power-mongering men with short penises tell me what to do?"--could have come right out of "Melrose Place."
But Doris Allen is not acting, though questioning the "shortcomings" of certain Assembly members proved to be her exit line from the speakership. No wonder that a new Times poll shows that, by a 2-1 margin, voters describe themselves as "angry" about the way government in Sacramento is working. The problem is that one of the chief tools voters have used in trying to fix state politics--term limits, mandated by Proposition 140 and now covering every member of the Legislature--has actually made matters worse.
Think back over the course of the Assembly's recent tribulations. The session began with the Republicans commanding a single-seat majority, which they gleefully intended to use to oust Willie Brown as Speaker. Indeed, Brown had become something of a "wanted poster" for the term-limits movement: Removing him from power had been an important symbolic and practical objective of Proposition 140 advocates. At the crucial moment, however, the wily Brown induced a Republican assemblyman to defect from his party, proclaim himself an independent and vote to retain Brown as Speaker. This turncoat, the hapless Paul Horcher, had actually denounced Brown's dictatorial habits in the campaign he had just won, and so his enraged and betrayed constituents promptly recalled him from office.
Horcher's mock-heroic declaration of independence proved short-lived. Once out of office, he became a paid consultant to the state Democratic Party.
Lacking a workable majority in the Assembly, Brown realized that he could not hold on for long and resolved that the next best thing to being Speaker was dictating who would be. He engineered Allen's ascent by delivering the unanimous backing of the Democrats, which, together with her own vote, gave the weak-willed Republican a transitory majority. In return, she allowed Democrats to split control of Assembly committees and thus continue to block GOP bills; and in a pitiful confession of her own dependency, awarded Willie Brown the novel title and flowing perks of "Speaker emeritus."
I have left out several interesting scenes, but what Horcher and Allen have in common is that both were term-limited legislators serving their last term. Allen had tried to move up to the state Senate in a special election, but lost.
Faced with what the Federalist Papers calls "approaching and inevitable annihilation," term-limited legislators like Horcher and Allen have little incentive to keep faith with their constituents or their party colleagues and little reason to think about the long-run public good. In the words of that 18th-Century American statesman Gouverneur Morris, they have to make hay while the sun shines. This is especially the case when, as in California, they are barred from ever holding the same office again. Their choice is therefore usually limited to running for a different office--chancy and expensive--or securing their future by other, sometimes sordid, means such as currying favor with politicians and lobbyists who can satisfy present vanity or supply future jobs and connections.
Horcher and Allen illustrate one of the unintended, but not unforeseeable, consequences of legislative term limits. Probably neither is a bad person, but under term limits, the weaker sides of human character are given opportunity and strong enticement.
Of course, term limits may do some good in the Legislature too: Willie Brown will finally exit that stage in 1996, whether he becomes the next mayor of San Francisco or something else. His power as Speaker was stripped from him at the polls in 1994, only to be restored by the perverse consequences of the very policy that voters had adopted to humble him.
And though recall elections punished Horcher and may soon punish Allen, this remedy is expensive, distracting and destructive of both political goodwill and the spirit of representative government.
Chances are, then, that Horcher and Allen are only the beginning of the troubles that term limits will visit on California politics. But these are "shortcomings" that have not yet caught the attention of Allen,--or of the electorate.