Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Schwarzenegger’s claim of legislative moderation still unproven

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Bodybuilder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger became California’s governor in 2003 under, to put it mildly, unusual circumstances.

Voters recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis for obvious failings and opted for Republican Schwarzenegger.

He arrived with unique advantages – celebrity, moderation, independence and a tough-guy image – and promised to improve the Capitol’s dysfunction.

However, he quickly squandered his momentum, tried to recoup with ballot measures that failed abjectly, and more or less acceded to the Democratic Legislature thereafter.

Schwarzenegger’s governorship ended with the state budget hemorrhaging red ink and voters in a sour mood, capped by an outrageous commutation of a prison term for a political pal’s son and a post-gubernatorial revelation that he had fathered a son with his family’s maid.

Like all politicians – or actors – Schwarzenegger yearns for a better public image and toward that end, founded the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at the University of Southern California.

Last week, his think tank issued a study claiming that two political changes he had espoused – legislative redistricting by independent commission and a “top-two” primary election – have had a moderating effect on the Capitol.

USC researcher Christian Grose compared floor votes from 2013, after the two changes had taken effect, with those of 2011 on a relative handful of bills affecting business, singled out by the California Chamber of Commerce, and concluded, after complex mathematical equations, that both legislative houses were marginally more moderate, i.e. more pro-business.

Schwarzenegger, in a newspaper article, declared that “because of these reforms, we are already seeing significant changes to the state’s political landscape – and the changes are positive ones.”

It may be true – or not – but comparing a few votes after only one year’s experience doesn’t prove anything, despite some cheerleading from non-Capitol media types.

Grose ignores the simple fact that half of the 2013 state Senate was elected under old rules and in the old districts – one reason why it would require several election cycles just to begin a valid evaluation, even if one were possible.

Moreover, one year’s set of bills is different from another year’s, and using only business-related measures ignores much of the legislative agenda. Furthermore, floor votes are incomplete indices because they exclude those bills that died before reaching the floor.

The electoral changes that Schwarzenegger espoused – plus a change in term limits – affect the political game like all rule changes.

It is, however, simply ludicrous to reach sweeping conclusions based on such scanty and narrow data, especially since history is replete with “reforms” that eventually backfired.