A few weeks ago, I was sitting around the pool at a home in a Silicon Valley burg with a friend of my brother-in-law as he was telling me what he did for a living. I figured early on that he working in the computer filed, but as he explained the intricacies of what goes on in his “Server Farm,” I got hopelessly lost somewhere between a “Byte” and a “RAM.” It was then that I realized that in a world of increasing technical and professional specialization we all speak a number of “foreign languages.” The most prevalent “foreign languages” as the words that we use in our work, whether it is in medicine, accounting, retail sales, law or automobile repair.
This is also true for people who get paid to wade into the world of politics and policy. To the uninitiated, it may seem on the surface that the California Legislature resembles a Tower of Babel. But legislators, staff and lobbyists do speak a specialized language that is fully understood among themselves but sounds like a foreign language to voters.
“Legislative Lingo” is a language of raw power and political ambition. It is not a beautiful language. There won’t be any sonnets or epic poems echoing through the Capitol Rotunda anytime soon. Shakespeare’s place is secure. Skilled and ambitious practitioners who will use just about any legal and public relations tactic to gain more power invented “Legislative Lingo”.
For the Californian who wants to better understand how the State Legislature works and to shape public policy, it is a language worth learning. Here are four commonly used phrases that are good to know if you want to understand the machinations of those who make laws in California.
Spot Bill. A bill that is drafted by the author and the special interest sponsor to propose only a minor change in the law to resolve a “technical problem.” That’s the public explanation. This is a ruse. The real goal of the author and the special interest sponsor is to move the now “technical and clarifying bill” quickly through the first house, either the Assembly or the Senate, so it can be changed dramatically in the second house. It moves effortlessly through the first house based on a series of lies. The political battle begins in the second house as the bill is amended with the controversial language – language that would extract money and/or power from another special interest group – that they intended to put into the bill all along. No one ever admits publicly that there bill is a “spot bill.” Technically, it’s against the rules. The “spot bill” is only revealed after the fact when it is suddenly is “gutted and amended” in the second house.
Gutting a Bill. No, this does not have anything to do with stinky fish although some bills do small like mackerel in the moonlight. An author “guts” a bill when he submits amendments that completely removes all the previous language and replaces it with all new language that has potentially huge impacts in a completely different area of law. Spot bills are often “gutted and amended” during the last two weeks of session so to avoid full legislative and public scrutiny.
The Third House. In our bicameral California Legislature, we have the Assembly and the State Senate. But unfortunately because of their excessive influence on the behavior of politicians, the hundreds of interest group lobbyists that swarm the Capitol are generally referred en masse as “The Third House.” To predict the likely fate of a bill, a legislator will often ask, “What does ‘The Third House’ think about the bill?”
Jamming the Governor. When a legislator has a bill that he believes resonates with the public or is popular with a special interest group and finds that the Governor has either threatened to veto the bill or is not willing to tell the legislator upfront what specific amendments are needed for a signature, the legislator may feel that he has no other choice but to “Jam the Governor.” The legislator will send the bill to the Governor in the hope in the hope that sufficient public or special interest pressure will convince him that he will suffer politically if he vetoes the bill. This tends to happen more often when the Governor and the legislative majority come from different political parties. However, the Democratic-controlled legislature has often jammed Governor Davis in the hope of politically pushing him to the Left.
This is Legislative Lingo in action. So the next time you are walking down the halls of the State Capitol and you overhear a staffer say “We’ve got a spot bill on the Senate side; we’re going to gut and amend it with the support of The Third House and then we are going to jam the Governor,” you will know exactly what he’s talking about.
July 6, 2001