Opinion Columns & Blogs

Viewpoints: Changes the Assembly should incorporate

As the New Year stirs hope for improvement among Californians, the Legislature and its connection to the California Dream becomes important. For state lawmakers, stung by news of an FBI investigation, this topic cannot be theoretical; the Legislature’s future is our job.

At this midpoint in the 2013-14 legislative session, my optimism has grown that a re-invigorated Legislature, effective as a co-equal branch of government in oversight and problem-solving, can indeed come back. For this, kudos are due our state’s voters for passing the top-two primary and Citizens Redistricting Commission. These have prompted a respect between members and an interest in problem-solving that spans party lines. That’s good news. Vague and touchy-feely as it may sound, strengthened trust between lawmakers is vital to improving the Legislature’s problem-solving capacity.

But, while voters have unlocked the door to an invigorated Legislature, it’s our job as lawmakers to open that door firmly.

We can do this by strengthening the policy resources available to the full membership of the Assembly and by reinstating well-tried concepts – founded upon the equality and inherent constitutional dignity of each legislator – into the Assembly’s routines. Abundant precedent exists for such steps; indeed it was once the norm.

These changes are:

1. Re-establishment of an Assembly Policy Research Management Committee, with its associated Assembly Office of Research; and

2. Revival of bipartisan “committee bills” as the tool of choice for major policy work; and

3. Resumption of routine use of conference committees, which reinforces healthy member-to-member collegiality as the basis for Senate and Assembly collaboration, as the norm for reconciling differences between the two houses for all bills when policy differences arise – and not just for budgets.

The Assembly Policy Research Management Committee structure, including an Assembly Office of Research, was formerly established by Assembly Standing Rule 117. It supported the Assembly’s standing committees as an interdisciplinary policy resource, capable of initiating policy studies with a long-term view. One distinctive facet of Rule 117 as it existed in 1982 is striking from a collegiality standpoint: it specified that the membership of the committee was strongly bipartisan and the chair served just one year and was to alternate yearly between the parties.

Under this policy management group and its rotating chairmanship, every Assembly member in every session could ask their colleagues, including a chair of their party, to place their top priority on the Assembly’s research agenda. This strengthened collaborative problem-solving by rewarding persuasiveness and personal rapport among members.

It’s easy to see the value this body would add to our institution. The Senate has maintained its equivalent Senate Office of Research for 44 years with a clear mission:

“The Senate Office of Research is a nonpartisan office charged with serving the research needs of the California State Senate … tracking emerging state and federal issues and acting as a liaison with think tanks and academic institutions.”

Voter approval last year of Proposition 28 – enabling new Assemblymembers to serve up to 12 years instead of six – makes now a good time to support these longer terms with stronger public policy tools. By addressing this potential now, during the era of Speaker John A. Pérez, the result can be a strengthened institution under revised 2015-16 rules.

The lesson of the 1970s and 80s, exemplified by the Rule 117 model, is that it made policy initiatives far more collaborative than has been true in the Assembly since six-year maximum terms became the rule in 1996. Before term limits, policy formation in standing committees was supported by a larger and explicitly collaborative policy research environment.

When this decentralized research framework prevailed, the office of Speaker itself reflected a different scope. Former Speaker Willie Brown, recalled by colleagues as a “members’ speaker” attentive to their needs, led the House with only the barest team of policy advisers because the policy expertise of the body lay in its standing committees and the Assembly Office of Research, the latter guided by the Policy Research Management Committee. The speaker was “chief among equals for a time” while shared leadership at the highest echelons of the Assembly policy environment reinforced member equality, respect and collegiality as the foundation of policy work.

Where such mutual respect and collegiality exist despite differences of political philosophy, they result in institutional capacity to solve problems in ways that advance the interests of all Californians.

For my part, I think such collegiality is how early Californians expected our democracy to work. Like our own version of “National Treasure,” those who built our Capitol and laid out its parklike grounds hid one symbol of representative government not just in the original state Capitol but everywhere around it. It is carved into the Capitol’s monumental staircases and cast in the iron streetlamps that dot Capitol Park.

The Capitol’s “hidden yet pervasive” symbol is the fasces, the tightly laced bundle of sticks which from ancient Rome has been seen as a symbol of representative government. A bundle of sticks, each one brittle in itself, becomes both strong and flexible when laced tightly together.

In an era of gridlock and shutdowns induced by “my way or the highway” stubbornness, this message from early Californians is very apt, and it’s time to reinvigorate this heritage. The Assembly’s history teaches us that institutional tools exist which can strengthen collegiality in problem-solving in specific ways that would materially advance the work already begun by our state’s voters.

If a bipartisan Policy Research Management Committee is re-established to guide an Assembly Office of Research, this step, coupled with revival of bipartisan “committee bills” and use of “conference committees” to reconcile differences between the Assembly and the Senate, will greatly strengthen our heritage of California democracy.

I’m confident that as we seek to build upon the voters’ work in these and similar ways, it will yield great benefit to all in our Golden State.