On freshman disorientation at California's Capitol
If the state Legislature were a business, would it get Bain Capital'd?
Imagine trying to run a successful business in which every two years one-third of the veteran employees leave and are replaced with green sieve heads who require training, mentoring and vigilant supervision to avoid All-World clusterfucks that feature overzealous health inspectors, class-action lawsuits, mangled co-workers—or a combination of the three.
That kind of turnover ain’t exactly the chamber-of-commerce-seal-of-approval model for profitability. Yet California’s 17 million voters expect the Legislature to boldly smack down the state’s ills, despite that this year, 40 of California’s 120 lawmakers are brand-spankin’ new to the gig as of 10 days ago, when they swore to uphold the Constitution and not engage in any animal husbandry within 1,000 feet of a public school for a t least the next two years.
Most of these Sacramento solons believe they’re the most righteous, badass problem solvers to stride purposefully beneath the white sepulchre’s rotunda since Hiram Johnson. Self-esteem doesn’t seem to be a chronic psychological deficiency among elected officials, state or federal, newly elected or otherwise. Nor do newbies judiciously restrain themselves due to ignorance of any issue, policy or procedural. All of their ideas are novel—downright revolutionary—and deserve unanimous enactment yesterday.
The crafty, grizzled lawmakers try to impart the rudiments of California’s Rube Goldberg-esque legislative process to their less-experienced colleagues. There’s any number of seminars and group gropes this month so that come January, when the Big Show lumbers into first gear, these 40 tabulae rasae have at least some CliffsNotes scribbled on them.
One of the more droll conceits is a course called “Ethics Training,” which new legislators and their veteran colleagues must submit themselves to annually. Doesn’t take Plato or Pliny—Elder or Younger—to realize if a player doesn’t bring their own moral compass to the ball game, they aren’t going to find one laying around on the field—regardless of the amount of training.
In fairness, it’s not like these new lawmakers were just beamed over from some alternate universe. Most have local political experience—a school board, city council, board of stupidvisors, mosquito abatement district. What too often happens is these new-to-the-Capitol kids get “domed,” as one lawmaker called it, before knowing better. “Domed” in this use describes the phenomenon of public officials forgetting everything they learned about the needs and mechanics of local government as soon as they set foot in Sacramento.
(No doubt, with a healthy amount of trepidation, a member of this legislator’s staff alerted the boss that the Urban Dictionary’s three principal definitions of “domed” are, in descending order: “To headshot someone in a video game,” “the act of giving oral pleasure to the male penis” and being “so high that you can’t perform simple operations.” Not that a Del Webb denizen would necessarily be aware of that, but in politics, “caution” is the watchword, and “domed” has disappeared from the legislator’s public presentations.)
Would that there were one snappy aphorism, some universal truism to guide legislative conduct. At least one a bit less violent than, “They put one of yours in the hospital, you put one of theirs in the morgue.”
Here’s a possibility: On the wall of the office of former senator and Assemblyman John Burton—now head of the California Democratic Party and an octogenarian as of December 15—was the quote, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
Abiding by that rule worked pretty well for millions of autistic kids, countless poor Californians, beneficiaries of Cal Grants college aid and advocates of lower greenhouse-gas emissions. All benefited from legislation, primarily authored by other lawmakers, which wouldn’t have become law without Burton muscling them through.
That can be hard, lonely work, however. A key reason some lawmakers continue to opt for the time-tested corporate-sponsorship route.