Larry N. Gerston: Move for part-time legislature is just another power grab
Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News Dec. 17, 2011
By Larry N. Gerston
Special to the Mercury News
Few words are more abused than the term “reform,” which for many is a synonym for positive change or improvement. Now a group is circulating a constitutional amendment ballot initiative that would “reform” the state Legislature by turning it into a part-time body that would meet for no more than three months each year.
Supporters say the new system would force the Legislature to be more laserlike in its policy-making responsibilities because of the limited time in which it would have to conduct its work. Knowing that they have to get back to their full-time jobs as soon as possible, legislators would move quickly in organizing their tasks for the year. As a result, a sometimes weary public would be more informed about the Legislature’s activities because of the compact time frame.
Who are they kidding?
Here’s what would really happen with a part-time Legislature. Policy makers of this branch would be all but crippled in their ability to understand complex issues and act on them. Hearings, research, meetings with various parties would be pushed aside in the name of expediency. Rather than act independently as an equal branch of government, the Legislature would depend on others with vastly more knowledge and institutional capabilities because of their permanence in Sacramento. And as for composition, only the very wealthy or retired people would be able to serve. Who else can take three months off their job every year and spend it in Sacramento?
To begin with, more power would accrue to the governor simply because of his year-round presence. With the Legislature absent most of the year, bureaucrats and lobbyists — neither elected — would negotiate with the governor day in and day out to carry out the “people’s” work (read the sarcasm). State issues don’t restrict their emergence to January through March of the year.
Speaking of the bureaucracy, the institution so denounced for its isolation would become even more insulated and powerful because of its control of expertise, access to information and recommendations for managing it. There would be no meaningful legislative body to oversee bureaucratic activity.
But the real winners would be the special interests. Already possessing a wealth of influence through money and lobbyists, they would now have one less obstacle to keep them from having their way on issues that serve their members first and the public last. Last year, the Mercury News published a report showing how interest groups wrote about one-third of the bills “carried” by legislators during a recent two-year session. Imagine what would happen with a part-time Legislature. Interest groups would be like kids in a candy shop, with no grown-ups around to tell them to stop making pigs of themselves.
It’s easy to pick on the Legislature. The fact is that term limits and impossible thresholds for raising taxes greatly hinder legislators’ ability to do their work. Further, the ability of special interests to circumvent the Legislature with ballot initiatives adds to legislative impotence. No wonder gridlock seems so permanent in Sacramento. Reforms in these areas would do a lot more good for the state.
So the choice becomes this: Emasculate the Legislature, leaving power in the hands of unelected individuals accountable only to their own selfish interests, or empower the Legislature to do its work, with the voters judging them in each election. In a representative democracy, I vote for the latter.
Larry N. Gerston is professor of political science at San Jose State. His latest book, “Not So Golden After All: The Rise and Fall of California,” will be published by Taylor and Francis in spring 2012. He wrote this article for this newspaper.