It was a prescient warning on the final night of session.
“If we’re wondering why we’re here after midnight,” Assemblyman Matthew Harper railed against his colleagues last Friday as they took up a resolution criticizing President Trump’s “racist and bigoted” response to the Charlottesville attack, “we spent I guess it’s about two hours telling the constituents back home through the TV you don’t like Donald Trump.”
“Seriously? Let’s utilize our time on issues that are germane to the state of California,” the Huntington Beach Republican said. More than seven hours later, shortly after 2:30 a.m., the Assembly finally wrapped up for the year.
Resolutions remain an eternally popular exercise at the Capitol. The Senate and Assembly collectively passed more than 300 this session.
So are these nonbinding declarations, which express an opinion by one or both houses but do not carry the force of law, a valuable function of democracy or a pointless waste of time? Lawmakers themselves are conflicted, but don’t expect them to stop any time soon.
“I’ve never been a big fan of them,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said, noting that he’s only carried one resolution during his five years in office. “I think members feel a need to express a certain view about something, and even if it doesn’t carry the weight of a law or policy, they want to do it anyway.”
More than five dozen came up in the final week alone: renaming highways, recognizing California Sikhs and ovarian cancer awareness, and commemorating anniversaries for women’s suffrage, 9/11 and the Protestant Reformation. Those urging the federal government to take a particular action occasionally proved contentious, like a resolution in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that generated nearly an hour of debate in the Assembly.
Harper, a frequent and vocal critic of liberal proposals, said he largely approves of the “ceremonial stuff” that constitutes most legislative resolutions – celebrating California’s diversity and other “unifying causes.” But he objected to the “inordinate amount of time” spent discussing Trump and his policies this year.
“If we’re just fluffing up to say, ‘This is what we think about this federal legislation,’ then I don’t think we’re giving our full value to the taxpayer,” Harper said. “They expect us to spend our time solving issues that we have jurisdiction over.”
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat whose eloquent speeches are often the standout of resolution debates, said the measures nevertheless “put the state on notice or the feds on notice” about the priorities of the Legislature. That can also lead to policy changes when directed at a particular institution.
In 2013, Weber, a former Africana studies professor, carried a resolution endorsing the “invaluable work” of the field, which she felt was under attack at California State University. After the Legislature sent it to then-Chancellor Timothy White, he formed a task force on advancing the university’s ethnic studies programs. The following year, she authored a resolution on chronic absenteeism. Several schools in her district, she said, subsequently launched “perfect attendance” programs for students.
While resolutions directed at Congress are less likely to have an effect, Weber acknowledged, “it may give comfort to some to know” that California will not give up its values “without a fight.” Her response to Harper’s comments on the Charlottesville measure was widely quoted by colleagues and other Capitol observers on social media.
“I, too, am tired of talking about Donald Trump,” she said on the Assembly floor. “But I keep being pulled back to the reality that if I’m not diligent every day and persistent every day about the value that I have, and that I am righteously indignant about the racism of this country, and that I fight every day against it, that it will grow.”
Given their symbolic resonance, it’s not uncommon for resolutions to prompt even more ferocious discussions than your typical bill. Recent commemorations for Ronald Reagan have been highly charged, while an honor for John Wayne was rejected over racist comments he made.
That atmosphere ratcheted up to another level this year, as the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature sought to establish itself as the resistance to Trump. The session kicked off last December with a resolution rebuffing his hardline immigration stance.
Meanwhile, Republicans complained not only about the relentless focus on the president, but that their own politically minded resolutions were being ignored.
Assemblyman James Gallagher of Yuba City sent out a press release last week urging the Assembly to schedule a vote for his measure condemning the “violent tactics” of antifa protestors. Sen. Joel Anderson of Alpine made countless unsuccessful motions during floor session for the Senate to hear his resolution on the Chinese persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, which he alleged was shelved after the Chinese consulate in San Francisco intervened.
Senate officials declined to comment on the Falun Gong resolution. An Assembly spokesman said Gallagher’s measure was referred to a policy committee and that time likely ran out before it was heard.
“I’m kind of used to the fact that the majority party fast-tracks certain things and not others,” Gallagher said of the Democratic-controlled Legislature. “Maybe it just didn’t fit with what they were trying to message on.”
The Trump-heavy agenda burned out even some Democrats. Rendon said the Legislature was responding to “extraordinary times,” but “can be guilty of overkill.”
“I wanted to steer away from these types of sort of symbolic gestures, and spend more time focusing on policy,” he said. “That’s, as far I’m concerned, the best way of distinguishing ourselves from what’s happening in Washington, from Trump himself.”
At the very least, the many, many resolutions serve as useful filler in a pinch.
“Some of the resolutions are so controversial, we know they’re going to engender a lot of speeches,” Rendon said, “so we’ll actually save them for a certain time when we’re going to be waiting for bills to come from the Senate or as a way of not having members get bored.”