Putting the Capitol on the honor system

Ballot measure would force lawmakers to read the damn bills before passing them

According to a recently completed statewide field poll, only 14 percent of the state’s voters approve of the Legislature’s performance, the poorest rating ever recorded in trend measures dating back to the early 1980s. After the recent budget crises, perhaps it’s only to be expected.

“Nobody is satisfied with the Legislature these days,” said Jerrol LeBaron, a Los Angeles County businessman, activist and proprietor of http://honorinoffice.org. “We need to be confident that the legislation will represent the people, and frankly, that’s not happening.”

To that end, LeBaron is promoting the “Honor in Office Act,” a proposed ballot measure which, if approved by voters, would prevent lawmakers from voting in favor of legislation unless they certify, under penalty of perjury, that they have read and understand the bill in question. LeBaron must collect 694,354 signatures for his measure to reach the ballot in 2010.

LeBaron said the resistance to his idea has been startling. “Just last night I got an e-mail from one of the current legislators, saying, ‘There’s no way we can do that with so many bills getting shuttled back and forth in the middle of the night. How do you expect us to do that?’ With attitudes like that, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to demand change,” he said.

LeBaron understands that it is almost impossible to read every single piece of legislation that is proposed. But he thinks it is reasonable to request that legislators understand bills they choose to enforce.

“If you know you’re going to reject a bill, fine,” LeBaron said. “Find a paragraph you disagree with. Have one of your aides find it for you. … But if you’re going to support it, you should understand it enough to debate for it. It just promotes common sense and competency in the Legislature.”

LeBaron said most voters are unaware of the degree to which their legislators skim the text of proposed new laws. The crucial state budget measures are no exception, he said.

“I was just at the Capitol for the Assembly meeting about the budget last night. And I’d say about 50 percent of the legislators were completely [fudging] their claims. One person was flipping pages in the bill, one was scrolling through his computer monitor and the rest clearly hadn’t read their half of the proposal. It’s unacceptable.”

Some voters, however, think the Honor in Office Act asks too much.

“We would hope that [the legislators] read all bills,” said professor Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State. “But in the flurry of end-of-term legislation, it’s simply not possible.”

She cites the recent budget rush as a prime example. “I know very many people were anxious about seeing the proposal in writing, because the devil’s in the details, but there just wasn’t time before,” she said. “If they’d been reading everything … it would have been impossible. And I generally don’t believe in trying to support the impossible.”

As for LeBaron’s belief that uncorrupted legislators would be unwilling to perjure themselves, she remained skeptical. “Perjury is only valid in court. We’re not going to take legislators to court over every single bill. It’s a waste of time and energy.” She said she doubted Honor in Office Act would ultimately be enforced.

“We’re not going to give them pop quizzes before every bill to make sure they’ve read it,” she continued. “At the rate legislation moves, legislators often rely on hired staff. There are moments where people haven’t read something they’ve voted for and regretted it, but micromanaging with initiatives is really dysfunctional.”

Instead of “nannying,” O’Connor suggests that the process could be better streamlined by cutting down on the number of bills legislators can propose. “[The passage of bills] is an expensive process,” she said, “and it can certainly be simplified. But internal legislative rules are much more easily changed than passing initiatives like this one.”

But LeBaron insists that his proposal will result in more competent lawmaking. “In The Dark Knight, the Joker says, ‘This town needs a better class of criminal.’ Today as I was driving through Sacramento, I thought, ‘This state needs a better class of leadership.’”