The Big 5

When the Big Five leaders huddle behind closed doors, we tend to think they’re making magic. But maybe their meetings are just a remedy for a broken system.

Illustration By Carl DeTorres

These meetings shouldn’t even be necessary.

If each piece of California’s political machine were well-oiled and maintained—if every elected official were doing his or her job properly—these gatherings would be unneeded. And if they did take place, they’d play out like social occasions, or perhaps orchestrated photo ops, rather than the delicate and state-shaking negotiation sessions they’ve become.

But, alas, here we are again, inside the state Capitol building, huddled outside the Highway Patrol-guarded double doors of the governor’s office while, inside, the so-called Big Five do the dirty work others have passed off to them. They hash out details, smooth over increasingly partisan politics, and wheel and deal in an attempt to prevent the state-government juggernaut from grinding to a cash-flow standstill.

ews reporters camp along the marbled wall of the Capitol hallways, waiting for one of these five men to emerge with a scrap of information—a quote or a vaguely telling status report. The television cameras and reporters’ notebooks attract the attention of capital visitors, and so field-trip-sized groups of middle-schoolers, gaggles of day-trip citizen lobbyists and other passers-by then clog the hallway, assuming that the man who occupies the office will be making an appearance.

The next thing you know, there’s an air of excitement in the hallway, as if the Beatles were about to emerge from an airliner and touch foot on American soil for the first time. As if we all out here were feckless looky-loos, dreaming about the great things these men of consequence (and, indeed, the Big Five thus far has been composed of only men) are doing behind closed doors.

“It’s not as if the Big Five—they have been anointed with some magical potion,” said Senator Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, formerly a member of the elite legislative group. “The Big Five is not anything more or less than a group of people who are representing their interests. … Just five people who have important jobs and positions.”

The five have continued to meet, sometimes in smaller groups, as we’ve headed into the current special-election season, with the aim of coming to a compromise on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ballot initiatives. And the Big Five have been encouraged by pundits to meet now, rather than this time next year, to fix structural problems in the state’s bill-paying plan.

But the cause that usually rallies the Big Five: the state’s annual budget.

During springtime budget negotiations, we journalists and, by extension, the public, treat the body as if it’s something fantastic. We wait—for a sighting or a quote—forgetting that when these five men convene, it is because the other 115 elected officials in the building could not come to an agreement. Legislators in committees and subcommittees could not bargain, could not compromise, could not productively discuss the state’s finances sans political posturing or bullheadedness. When these five men get together, it is usually because an impasse threatens to halt government paychecks to the state’s workers, social-service agencies and community colleges, among others.

These meetings are an indicator that the system is broken.

Former Senator Jim Brulte was a part of the institution for four years, April 2000 to May 2004, as minority leader of his house.

“The Big Five’s necessary only when the democratic system fails,” he said.

The problem is that the system routinely fails.

Illustration By Carl DeTorres

The way the institution is utilized is telling of a governor’s style of holding sway over the Legislature. Schwarzenegger convened few meetings of the Big Five this year—fewer than during his first year in office. He recently even publicly denigrated the body.

That was on June 21, during a press conference Schwarzenegger had called for the purpose of discussing his proposed budget with news reporters. One seasoned journalist who, like others in the Capitol building press-briefing room, had covered budget negotiations in years past and knew the usual drill, asked whether the action governor planned to summon together the Big Five.

Schwarzenegger answered this way: “I’ve never reached any kind of agreement, or accomplished anything, in a Big Five meeting.”

He continued, saying he sees the meetings as forums for political posturing—as “photo ops"—and not for real, productive discussion.

It was doubly interesting then, just nine days later, when the governor convened a Big Five meeting and invited both television and newspaper cameras to capture the event. The quintet of politicos appeared, all smiles, on the evening news and on the front page of the following morning’s edition of The Sacramento Bee, with Schwarzenegger at the head of a conference-room table flanked by legislative leaders—one Democrat and one Republican to both his left and his right.

How it’s supposed to work
The politicians who have come to be known as the Big Five—the governor, the speaker of the Assembly, the Senate president pro tempore, and the minority leaders of both houses—are arguably the five most powerful in Sacramento. In its present form, the Big Five is made up of Schwarzenegger; Assemblyman Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles; Senator Don Perata, D-Oakland; Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield; and Senator Dick Ackerman, R-Irvine.

The big decision for which they routinely convene, the passing of an annual state budget, is arguably the state’s most important legislative act.

Here’s how the budget process is supposed to work: The governor draws up a state budget and submits it to the Legislature by January 10. Senate and Assembly budget committees then begin discussing the proposed budget, assigning out its finer points to subcommittees for hearings. In May, the governor revises the proposed budget based on updated revenue and expenditure forecasts. The subcommittees make recommendations back to the full committees, which then decide whether to adopt the budget. After adoption, each house needs a two-thirds vote to approve the budget, after which point it will be discussed by a Budget Conference Committee, assigned to iron out the differences between the Senate and Assembly versions.

The conference committee has the ability to reach a decision and then pass a budget bill back to each of the houses, where a two-thirds vote will send the budget to the governor’s desk. The state constitution requires that the Legislature pass a budget bill by June 15.

“In the best of all worlds, the conference committee will pass a budget and send it to the governor,” Brulte said. “The governor will either sign it or veto it.”

That’s generally the way it works in other large states. In Florida, for example, the governor has greater authority to alter a budget that has been adopted by the Legislature, eliminating the necessity for lengthy negotiations among the state’s top politicians. Texas writes its budget only once every two years, and though late flare-ups occur, the document usually makes its way to the governor in a timely manner.

But in California, that never happens. Long before the budget discussions reach that point, the state gets a stalemate. Help is needed.

Inventing an institution
In the mid-1980s, just a few years into the first administration of then-Governor George Deukmejian, a legislative stalemate was brought on by indecision over a controversial plan to build a state prison in East Los Angeles.

Budget discussions broke apart.

Illustration By Carl DeTorres

“In the committees at that time, nobody seemed to have the authority to move the budget along,” remembered David Roberti, a longtime legislator who was pro tem of the Senate at that time.

It is true that, prior to that budget year, the governor regularly had met with these four men for informal gatherings that were referred to simply as “leadership meetings.” The leaders from each party and each house ostensibly represented all 120 legislators, so meeting with the few of them was always an important exercise in gauging the temperature of the entire body.

What Deukmejian did was take those meetings and formalize them. He drew up an agenda, set guidelines and set times to meet, said Fred Silva. A government-relations adviser with the Public Policy Institute of California, Silva worked 20 years ago as a budget adviser to Roberti.

“There was an agenda, so you got from Point A to Point B to Point C, and you made progress,” Silva said.

It was that formality and tangible budget progress that turned the leadership meetings into something more pivotal.

Thus, the Big Five was born.

“You had a governor that set an agenda for the discussion—Deukmejian had a sense of organization,” Silva said.

The men kept the meetings friendly—Deukmejian would bring cookies for the other men, Roberti says—but not too leisurely. They meant to get work done.

“It wasn’t around but a week, and people were calling it the Big Five,” Roberti remembered.

Each of the men, at the time, was only about two years into his tenure in Sacramento. They simply felt their way through a tough budget year the only way they knew how, Silva said.

“They invented, themselves … a sort of institution,” he said.

By the time Pete Wilson took over the governor’s office, in 1991, the meetings had become a necessary part of the budget process. The governor’s role in the budget give-and-take—once very hands-off—was now vital.

“He felt the differences wouldn’t get resolved unless he got involved in the process,” said Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist who formerly worked as chief media spokesman for Wilson.

Behind closed doors
When the governor’s office changes hands, and new legislators are elected to leadership positions, the dynamics of the Big Five change. The way the institution works is largely dependent upon the personalities of its parts and the relationships between them. A fiery and tenured John Burton does not equal a low-key and politically embattled Don Perata, for example.

Illustration By Carl DeTorres

But things generally work like this:

The Big Five convenes when the governor summons the leadership to his office. Any of the four leaders can request such a meeting, but it rarely works that way, according to those who have taken part.

The men gather around a long table in an inner conference room in the governor’s complex of offices. Sometimes a staff person, usually a finances adviser, accompanies each politician. The staffers sit away from the table, or sometimes just outside the room. Often, it is just the five men inside the room.

What happens next is rarely spoken about on the record.

“There’s no two Big Five meetings that are the same,” Brulte said.

Former speaker Herb Wesson agreed. “Wasn’t it A Tale of Two Cities that started ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’? Dickens. That’s exactly what the Big Five meetings are like,” Wesson said. “Sometimes, they could be the most boring, most unproductive, pain-in-the-butt meetings where you just can’t wait to get out of there. And sometimes they were exhilarating.”

Cox reiterated that there is nothing mystical or fantastic about what happens inside the room when the Big Five convenes.

“It’s just a business meeting,” he said. “Sometimes it’s very tense; sometimes it’s very loose. But it’s a pretty standard business meeting.”

One constant, according to those who have been part of the institution, is the need for an open working environment inside the room.

“The extent to which the leaders have a personal relationship makes a huge difference,” Silva said, remembering how former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown used to walk into each Big Five meeting talking about movies, an interest that the men had in common. “It was like an interpersonal device to lower the level of anxiety and tension.”

The men who have been one of the Big Five say that openness—having enough trust to shed the pretense of politics and say what’s truly on one’s mind—is necessary to making a meeting work.

“I don’t want to call it a free-for-all,” Wesson said. “But you can say what you want to say.”

When that openness doesn’t exist, nothing gets done.

“Sometimes people are just playing games,” McCarthy said. “You have to determine: Are people really serious about doing something, or are you just playing around?”

Illustration By Carl DeTorres

Former Senate President Pro Tem John Burton was well-known for disliking the meetings, several people said. Former Burton spokesman Dave Sebeck, who is now communications director for Perata, said the former pro tem was no fan of meetings in general.

“Half the time, he wouldn’t sit in his chair,” Wesson remembered of Burton. “He’d say, ‘I hate this’ and use colorful metaphors.”

Several Big Five participants remembered Burton occasionally launching snide barbs across the room and then storming out.

Other men have been known to get angry in the room, slamming fists onto the table and challenging one another. But the stories are most often heard second-, third- or fourth-hand.

When this large chunk of the budget-negotiation process was displaced out of the committee forum and dumped into the governor’s conference room, it also was removed from public earshot. Former Big Fivers say that being away from the public and the press—and the spinning and grandstanding that are common in those forums—is necessary to productive negotiations.

“Sometimes you have to hammer it out without the whole world there,” Roberti said. “Cameras are killers. If the press is there, you don’t really say what’s on your mind.”

There also has been, since the leadership meetings became known as the Big Five, an unwritten rule that the details of what is discussed inside the governor’s office are not discussed in public, at least not until leaders have returned to their caucuses to relay the discussions.

“You pretty much don’t talk about it,” Cox said. “You don’t just come out and tell the press what happened in the Big Five meetings. It doesn’t serve anybody’s interest.”

Legislators do acknowledge, however, that the Big Five have a responsibility to relay what has taken place in a meeting.

“The challenge is to say something that was quotable but did not give away what was said in there,” Wesson said.

Just a photo op
The style and significance of the Big Five meetings has changed from administration to administration.

When Wilson inherited the Big Five institution, he took it seriously, say those who worked for and around him. He called meetings only when he believed the Legislature had made as much progress as it could, and he would approach them workmanlike, addressing the budget line by line.

“They were long, marathon sessions,” said Peter DeMarco, whose experience with Big Five meetings comes from working both as Wilson’s press secretary and then as a spokesman for Senator Cox. “When Pete Wilson would call a Big Five, it was something everyone knew would take a long time.”

Gray Davis initially did not employ the meetings—not until he felt he needed them. Wesson could not remember a single Big Five meeting in Davis’ first year, 2000. That year, the one during which the Legislature passed a budget by the June 15 deadline, the state benefited from a revenue overflow. But in 2002, the budget stalemate broke records, stretching into September. When the Legislature’s indecision affects paychecks, regular Californians begin to take notice. So, Davis began using the Big Five meetings with greater frequency.

Most of former Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson’s time in the Big Five was under then-Governor Gray Davis’ leadership.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“Gray, by flip side, used them as nothing more than photo ops,” DeMarco said. The Democrat governor would call the meetings often, inviting the news cameras in. “He was trying to give the image that he was getting something done. And, you know, you had to go, because if you weren’t there, what was the photo going to be?”

That was when the meetings strayed from agenda-driven business meetings and became more about politics, say those who took part.

“It is posturing,” Wesson said. “But it is also learning to look someone in the eyes and listen to cold words.”

Despite the occasional verbal fencing between leaders, Wesson said the meetings were always worthwhile.

“At the end of the day, we would get it done,” he said.

Don’t bleep the governor
Schwarzenegger still seems to be feeling out the meetings, determining how best to use them. His aides have alluded to his belief that the Legislature should step up to the budget plate and counter his budget proposal in a timely manner.

But it’s clear that Schwarzenegger wants to play a large part in the budget process, rather than revert to a time before Deukmejian, during which the Legislature took a firmer grip of the budget reins.

Schwarzenegger thinks that the way the budget is put together is so vital to the state’s health that he has drawn up a spending plan—the so-called Live Within Our Means Act—and put it on the November 8 special-election ballot. Proposition 76 would provide that state spending does not cease when a budget is signed late and would give the governor more power to control state spending, by allowing him to declare a “fiscal emergency” and then, in an absence of swift legislative action, unilaterally reduce certain spending.

And so he handles the Big Five meetings like a businessman would.

“Governor Davis was paralyzed by analysis. This is more of an action governor,” Cox said of Schwarzenegger. “His action is more of a businessman’s model.”

Silva says Schwarzenegger has been successful in Big Five meetings “because he practices the art of the deal.”

The governor also tries to keep the meetings loose and frank.

Wesson remembered one exchange between himself and Schwarzenegger.

“'I’m not going to let you bleep me. Are you trying to bleep me?’” Wesson, replacing a blunter word with “bleep,” remembered the governor saying.

About a week-and-a-half after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger dismissed Big Five meetings as venues for political posturing and photo ops, he posed for this pic by a gubernatorial photographer.

Courtesy Of Governor's Media Office

Wesson shot back: “I can assure you that no one on the Democratic side wants to bleep you.”

In his first year, Schwarzenegger held several Big Five meetings, both for budget negotiations and to discuss two initiatives he sought to place on the ballot. He appeared to use the meetings, then, to get a feel for where the leaders and their caucuses stood. He provided the forum and allowed the two polarized sides to talk, stepping out of the way and listening, in order to gauge where the two could come together, closer to his moderate stance.

This year, Schwarzenegger has called far fewer meetings of the Big Five. That’s because he has learned better when is the most opportune time to bring the politicians together, say his aides. Often, Schwarzenegger will meet with the Republican leadership and then, separately, with the Democrats and only bring the two parties together when he feels they can come to an agreement—when he feels he can seal a deal.

“He’s a pretty good facilitator,” McCarthy said. “He’s used them well, and he hasn’t used a lot of them.”

But Schwarzenegger may not have given birth to that sense of trust and openness that former Big Fivers said is necessary. Perata said this year that the goodwill needed to foster negotiations did not exist because of the way Schwarzenegger had dealt harshly with legislators in public.

Then, just nine days after Schwarzenegger publicly waved a dismissive hand at the Big Five institution, he embraced it, summoning the men together. He had been meeting separately with Perata and Núñez—the “Big 3,” some onlookers called it when they saw the two Democrats emerge from the governor’s office earlier in the week—and apparently reined the two men in close enough that a deal could be brokered. It was June 30, a Thursday before the Fourth of July holiday weekend and one day before many of the state’s legislators planned to visit Southern California for the swearing-in of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Symptom or cure?
On the second day of Big Five budget negotiations this year, on Saturday, July 2, news cameras again were briefly invited into the conference room. The leaders, in their less-formal holiday-weekend garb, sat down for what turned into a six-hour bargaining session. Schwarzenegger and Democrats still disagreed on proposed tax increases, education funding and other issues that amounted to less than 1 percent of the $115-some-odd billion budget. And the state was already two days into its next fiscal year.

Somebody clearly needed to take action.

On the following Tuesday, Schwarzenegger and the leadership announced that they had reached a deal and would send their agreed-upon budget bill to legislators. The governor previously had been dismissive of the Big Five. But it appeared that the meetings had been productive, resulting in the earliest-signed budget in five years, just three weeks past the legislative deadline.

Were the Big Five powwows exactly what the state needed, or was the brief turnaround an indication that the meetings have become another symptom of a broken budget-writing system?

“It’s impossible to pass a budget without the Big Five,” Wesson said.

But political watchers have criticized the institution, saying that it now amounts to just another level of political posturing and that the length of this year’s budget delay had more to do with Democrats’ decision to concede and focus, instead, on Schwarzenegger’s November special election, than it did with the governor’s deal-making acumen.

And indeed, the Big Five has worsened the budget-process wrinkle that it was created to smooth over.

Instead of pushing the responsibility back down to budget committees, the leadership inadvertently encouraged the Legislature to rely on it to broker the final deal. Legislators simply passed the budget responsibility onto the Big Five.

“The conference committee basically stopped making tough decisions. You know, why make the tough decisions when you can pass the buck?” Brulte said.

The duty shirking spread all the way back to each house’s budget subcommittees, according to Cox.

“There’s no effort to seek compromise at the beginning,” he said, cautioning that when legislators divest themselves of responsibility, they also lose the ability to win funding for their interests. “If you’re always relying on the Big Five, your issues frankly just don’t get resolved.”

Pundits also say the behind-closed-doors meetings have become just as politicized as the public comments and press conferences that precede them. And that, according to critics of term limits, can be blamed on the fact that fewer legislators have tenure and are forced to campaign perpetually.

Unfortunately, it seems the behind-closed-doors Big Five meetings will continue into the future.

The cycle for next year’s budget has already begun. And Schwarzenegger had sought to fix structural problems in the state’s finances—to help balance next year’s budget within this one. So, it is clear he is already looking ahead to this time next year, when the Big Five surely will be needed again.