Dan Walters

GOP Congress, Democratic Legislature use same tactics

Charles Munger Jr. of Santa Clara, center with bow tie in 2008, was the chief advocate of Proposition 54, which requires 72 hours’ notice before final votes on legislative bills.
Charles Munger Jr. of Santa Clara, center with bow tie in 2008, was the chief advocate of Proposition 54, which requires 72 hours’ notice before final votes on legislative bills. Sacramento Bee file

A lot of ink is being spilled and air time consumed these days in parsing the conflicting politics of Sacramento and Washington.

There are, it’s assumed, inevitable clashes over issues ranging from immigration to global warming and health care between the Republican-controlled federal government and a nation-sized state government dominated by Democrats.

Only time will tell whether the cross-continent conflicts are real or imagined, but when it comes to legislative procedure, there’s a symbiotic, albeit ironic, agreement on expediency.

President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans want to roll back Obamacare, and while that would be relatively easy in the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate’s rules make it more difficult.

The Senate’s GOP leadership wants to do it on a simple majority vote, since it lacks the 60-vote majority that is the traditional norm for major legislation to overcome the possibility of a filibuster.

Therefore, Republicans will offer piecemeal Obamacare repeals via what’s known as “reconciliation,” a majority vote process dealing with the federal budget, hoping that the independent and powerful Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, agrees.

Democrats, of course, are crying foul, saying it’s wrong for Republicans to characterize a major policy change such as repealing Obamacare as merely an adjunct to the budget and thus escape the 60-vote rule. They portray it as an underhanded parliamentary trick.

Shift 2,374 miles westward to the capital of California.

For the last half-decade, ever since voters reduced the vote requirement for state budgets from two-thirds to a simple majority, the Capitol’s dominant Democrats have used “budget trailer bills” as vehicles to enact big changes in state law, many with little or no connection to the budget, outside of the usual legislative process.

When budget trailer bills first arrived in the Capitol a couple of decades ago, they were few in number, usually under 10 each year, and strictly limited to changes in law needed to implement the budget.

The number has grown exponentially in recent years and their connections to the budget have become more tenuous. Some in fact, just have token appropriations of a few thousand dollars to establish them as budget-related.

As Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2017-18 budget was unveiled this month, legislative leaders introduced nearly 100 bills devoid of content but tagged as budget trailer bills. They are just sitting there as “spot bills,” to be filled with whatever politicians decide secretly to do, even many months after the budget is enacted.

Republican legislators complain about misuse of trailer bills, and last year, voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring 72 hours’ notice before they or any other bills are given final votes. But it’s uncertain whether it will reduce the inherent sneakiness of the process.

Effectively, therefore, Sacramento Democrats are doing what Washington Democrats oppose, while Republicans in Washington do what Republicans complain about in Sacramento.

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