Capitol Alert

In California’s Democrat-dominated Capitol, it’s Senate vs. Assembly

Sacramento Bee photo illustration

The semi-annual culling of bills went about as poorly as it could for state Sen. Connie Leyva.

The Chino Democrat had four bills in the Assembly Appropriations Committee earlier this month when the panel announced which of those high-cost measures would advance to a full floor vote. Two were held, one was stripped of her authorship, and the last passed with a new co-author added: Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, whose opponent Leyva endorsed in January.

Perhaps it was to be expected. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon warned as much at the California Roast in June, when he joked that the new term “for when a legislator sticks their nose into someone else’s business” would be “pulling a Leyva.”

“And that’s kind of funny, because that’s also the new expression that we’re gonna use for when a bill dies in the next house immediately: It got ‘Leyva-ed,’ ” he added, to roars from the audience. “You think that’s funny? It’s not a joke. Just wait. It’s coming, it’s coming.”

Welcome to the state Legislature’s annual civil war. Forget Democrats and Republicans – the divide most likely to make an impact on the outcome of this session is the perpetual rivalry between the Senate and Assembly.

It’s a long-running tension, built naturally into the bicameral setup of the legislative process, that might wax and wane with differences in the relationships between house leaders and policy priorities. But it tends to flare up again at the end of every session as each house gets its hands on the other’s bills, holding some for ransom and enacting their revenge for slights, real or perceived.

“There is a little bit of a dance,” said Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, who compared it to an “arms buildup” where important measures are held as “leverage” and slowly trickle out before the end of session to ensure caucus priorities are taken up in the other chamber. “It’s an emotional time. They say not to fall in love with your bills.”

Former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez remembers a nugget of wisdom he learned when he was first elected and then passed on in new member trainings for both parties: You may think the Republicans or the Democrats are your enemy, but your enemy is the Senate.

Members and longtime legislative staff say the clash between the houses mostly stays confined to the halls of the Capitol. While there may be victims along the way in the struggle for the upper hand, it rarely has significant implications for statewide policy or the public at large.

They argue that it can even be a productive force, with a healthy sense of competition driving the ruling Democrats, who rarely face obstacles from the small Republican caucuses in each house, to do better work.

Former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who represented Sacramento in the Legislature for 14 years and led the Senate from 2008 to 2014, used to keep 3x5 index cards to track the priority bills from both houses and make sure they were advancing equitably through the legislative process.

He said that on the most important issues, the two houses always managed to come together to craft a compromise, knowing the public only cared about what they ultimately got done, though the only time he could recall everyone completely setting aside their rivalry was during the 2009 budget negotiations, as they dealt with the fallout of the economic recession.

“You’re judged collectively in the end. That’s the irony,” Steinberg said. “And you always try to remember that in the middle of mediating who should author the bill or which house should get credit.”

Ask about the inter-house dynamic and almost everyone will offer some variation of the verbal shrug: Legislators are people, too.

“The goal is to try and overcome that,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara.

In June, her bill expanding access to paid leave for new parents at small companies died in a committee overseen by Assemblyman Roger Hernández, D-West Covina, just weeks after she publicly called on him to take a leave of absence amid a pending domestic violence case against him.

Jackson said she was “disappointed” by the measure’s failure because it was “never articulated” to her what was wrong with it, but she declined to speculate on Hernández’s motivations. In a statement at the time, he cited the “burden” placed on small businesses, though he had voted for a similar proposal the year before.

Hernández was stripped of his committee assignments a week later after a judge granted a restraining order against him. Jackson has since revived her bill.

Lawmakers often play friendly and collaborate in public, but chatting in private, members and staff frequently chafe against the culture of the other house and how it affects them.

The current conventional wisdom goes like this: The Senate views the Assembly as chaotic, with leadership unable to corral the insurrectionist caucus of business-friendly Democrats. The Assembly resents that the Senate keeps trying to impose its more liberal policies on the lower house, whose members, with their smaller districts, feel they are more connected to the people of California.

Assemblyman Adam Gray, a Merced Democrat who worked at the Capitol for 13 years before being elected himself in 2012, compared the mentality to two villages protecting themselves against the other.

“The Senate and the Assembly are like two political districts and their members are constituents,” Gray said. The leaders of the houses, in particular, need to keep their caucuses happy.

And that’s where prickliness can spark into retaliation.

Perhaps the chairman or -woman of a committee feels disrespected by another member and persuades their friends to kill that member’s bill. Measures introduced by house leaders and their closest allies are more vulnerable to being used as bargaining chips.

“Like all wars, it starts with something stupid,” Gatto said. “Once the emotions are unleashed, it’s hard to put them back where they belong.”

As speaker from 2010 to 2014, Pérez often had to counsel upset members of his caucus and determine whether they had lost their bills for legitimate policy reasons or had been “screwed out of a bill” for “petulant reasons,” like a legislator trying to undercut a rival running for the same office or get back at someone who said something they didn’t like. If it turned out to be the latter case, he said he would “mediate and mitigate” to stop them from taking revenge into their own hands and sending the situation snowballing.

Yet even house leaders are not above the gamesmanship.

On the last night of session in 2010, Pérez said he grew frustrated waiting for the Senate to send back Assembly bills it had already passed. Worried that the Assembly would run out of time to approve any changes before the midnight deadline, and convinced that the Senate was intentionally delaying the transmission of the measure to ensure everything they wanted had passed the Assembly first, Pérez walked down the hall himself to collect the stack of bills sitting on the corner of a desk.

“It literally took me storming the Senate chamber,” he said.

The tradition goes back to time immemorial, cropping up in matters both profound and petty.

Under legendary Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti, who served together in leadership for more than a decade, the tension was often driven by their personal power struggle. It surfaced everywhere from a contentious division of legislative funding after the budget was limited by voters in 1990 to basic public recognition.

Roberti turned down an invitation to Brown’s $250,000 party at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco because Brown had referred to himself as the “Speaker of the Legislature” on the invite. There are two houses of the Legislature, not one, Roberti wrote in a letter to Brown. “You should bill yourself accordingly.”

The changing dynamic between the houses, as one gains more senior members or drives the agenda with its policies, has also frequently led to skirmishes.

In 1999, a simmering dispute over commemorative license plates exploded into a hostage situation. When the Senate Transportation Committee refused to take up an Assembly bill creating a special plate for the Girl Scouts, the Assembly Appropriations Committee announced it would continue to hold a Senate measure for a license plate benefiting breast cancer research until the Senate committee acted.

“I’m trying to have the honor of my house established,” said then-Assemblywoman Carole Migden, a San Francisco Democrat who chaired the Appropriations Committee. “It’s a matter of honor here.”

The logjam was eventually broken the following year, and both bills were signed by the governor.

More recently, former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata were known to undercut each other in major policy proposals.

After Núñez chastised the Senate at the end of the 2006 session for delaying his measure to change the political redistricting process so that it failed to make the November ballot, he introduced another initiative the following year to overhaul term limits that initially would have allowed every legislator except Perata more time in office.

When the Senate once passed a bond measure and Perata gaveled down the session before the Assembly could send along its parallel measures, Núñez responded by banning senators from the Assembly floor.

Even as a new term-limit system balances out the longevity and expertise of those serving in the Senate and Assembly, and future elections potentially bring more Republican lawmakers or a Republican governor back to the Capitol, don’t expect things to change much. Politicians whose careers hinge on proving to voters what they have accomplished will always be jockeying for recognition.

Take last year, when a deal to finally pass medical marijuana regulations 19 years after it was legalized by voters came down to the final night of session because the lawmakers behind competing measures in the Senate and Assembly were still negotiating who would get credit.

“Nobody on the outside cared who the authors were. They just wanted the policy to get done,” said Geoff Long, a top legislative policy consultant who retired last year after three decades at the Capitol. “When you’ve got a big issue like marijuana or guns or tobacco or health care, there’s going to be multiple bills on the same topic.”

As for Leyva’s legislative misfortune, Rendon dismissed suggestions that it was political retaliation for her endorsing the wrong candidate.

“I believe she has eight bills on the Assembly floor,” he said.

A diplomatic Leyva said she was “excited” that her priority bill, reimbursing local San Bernardino agencies for costs associated with responding to last December’s terrorist attack, had survived.

“It’s all good,” she said. “I can only control my own behavior. I can’t control anyone else’s.”

Things happen fast when appropriations committees churn through their "suspense files." In this video, Chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, goes through four bills in a minute on Aug. 11, 2016. The fates of the bills were decided privately in

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff