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Misconceptions About California’s Legislature

Misconceptions About California’s Legislature

The California State Capitol building in Sacramento, Calif., on April 18, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Lance Christensen

Lance Christensen

8/8/2023

Updated: 8/8/2023

Commentary
Few people have described our Leviathan Legislature so succinctly as G.K. Chesterton did a century ago. “When a politician is in opposition he is an expert on the means to some end; and when he is in office he is an expert on the obstacles to it.” Enter California’s 120 full-time lawmakers.
How does the most robust legislative body in the country, with full-time senators and assemblymembers staffed by thousands of well-compensated personnel, do their job so poorly?
There are not volumes enough to describe the libertine politicos in Sacramento who make a lot of promises on the campaign trail but have no shame when they approve a $310 billion pork-laden budget and engorge the state codes year after year with (mostly) nonsense bills that constrict freedom and drive good people from the state. However, as the legislators finish their summer vacation, it is useful to explore some of the most pervasive misconceptions related to that body.
Full disclosure: I write the following while acknowledging that there are several legislators who are principled, thoughtful, and serve for the right reasons. The same can be said for much of the legislative staff—they are honest and earnest doing what they feel is their civic duty. That said, the following is accurate for the supermajority of people who serve in the Legislature. Here are a few of my favorites:
Misconception: “I vote for the person, not the party.”
Fact: Technically, that is true, but for every legislator, you voted for a party apparatus—rightly or wrongly—that will shape their committee assignments, legislative packages, hearing agendas, bill analyses, staffing arrangements, extra-curricular politicking, and fundraising.
There are two partisan caucuses—Democratic and Republican—in both the Senate and Assembly. The majority party, Democratic, has near unlimited power and the benefit of capturing the chairmanships of every single committee, which provides them with more staffers than they already have.
If legislators in the majority party want to maintain their committee assignments, get their bills passed and not get their staff fired, they learn quickly how to vote “correctly.” Granted, the minority party currently does not have enough votes to move the needle on most issues, including party disciplinary functions. So, when things abruptly change—a legislator is removed from a committee, their bills are reassigned or gutted and amended, or staff all the sudden do not have a desk to go to—one may reasonably assume that the legislator may have stepped out of line with legislative leadership or their special interest sugar daddies.
Misconception: “Legislators care about our pain and problems.”
Fact: Legislators care about their constituents’ pain and problems as long as it helps them get re-elected. Their bill packages reflect their priorities. California Senators are permitted forty bills per two-year session; Assemblymembers are allowed fifty. If a legislator is chair of a committee, they may usher a few more bills.
Outside of their bill package, a legislator may add their name as a co-author on an unlimited number of bills. This allows them to take the credit for bills without doing the heavy lifting. They will often add their name as co-authors during committee hearings while casting thousands of votes throughout the year.
Further, taxpayers should always be circumspect about any legislator’s commentary or press releases on any major issues or tragedies. While we want our elected officials to lead when needed, most press releases are self-congratulatory and when the ribbon cuttings are over and the cameras are off, it is easy to see who is there for the long-haul and difficult negotiations.
Misconception: “Why would anyone possibly vote against a bill that stops [fill in the blank bad thing]?”
Fact: Advocating for what would seem to be an otherwise simple change in law is usually a death knell for most bills. There is a reason that state statutes are so voluminous; there are specific constituencies to please and protect, and some are more powerful than others. Plus, well-heeled lobbyists, activists, coalitions, and associations watch the legal codes like hawks. Once alerted to a possible change that will remove power or control over a certain facet of law, it does not happen without their consent.
Legislators are not eager to introduce proposals or vote against special interests who donate and organize to get their desired legislators in place. That is why teachers’ associations, government unions, and environmental groups hold so much sway over most decisions in Senate and Assembly committee hearings and proposals that make it to the governor’s desk for his signature.
If you want a truly representative Legislature that works for you, it is time for Californians to get wise about what is happening in Sacramento. As the Legislature finishes out its session this month, using this newfound knowledge has the potential to stop a lot of rubbish before it gets to the governor’s desk for his approval.
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Lance Christensen

Lance Christensen

Author

Lance Christensen is the vice president of education policy and government affairs at the California Policy Center and former candidate for state superintendent of public instruction.

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