There is an old joke in the Capitol that goes something like this: “There are two things that you never want to see being made – sausage and the law.” As one who worked for years as an apprentice butcher in my father’s meat market and now as a policy consultant with the California Legislature, it is clear to me that I would much prefer seeing the real sausage being made. At least the end product is tasty. Scrambled eggs, sausage, and a glass of orange juice on a quiet Sunday morning is pretty hard to resist. On the other hand, a hastily-crafted law or one designed to favor a particular special interest group can cause quite a bit of confusion, hardship for the public, and usually costs the average citizen, an out-of-luck interest group or business a lot of money. It can cause indigestion or worse for the body politic.
As the Legislature heads into the final three weeks of this year’s session, we can expect the Capitol to became a veritable 24/7 sausage factory. And deliberative democracy will suffer because the Legislature will try to do too much in too little time. Legislators will attempt to pass over 1,000 bills before the stroke of midnight on September 14th. Every few minutes amendments will be proposed and adopted and “mocked-up” bills passed off the Assembly and Senate floors with little or no debate. And in the midst of all this frenetic activity, many legislators will instead be intensely focused on how the redistricting bill will ultimately determine the future of their political careers. Pouring over every boundary line in the proposed district maps will certainly distract them from the more important work of scrutinizing every word in every bill, which could soon become the law of the land.
The crush of activity at the end of session is when the real game starts for those lobbyists and special interest groups that are afraid to expose their agenda to public scrutiny and full debate. The strategy is to get last minute floor amendments adopted when the public is not looking. It happens every year. During the last days of the 1999 session, a bill was radically amended on the Assembly floor, at the behest of some grocers and unions to ban “big box stores” like Walmart and Costco from selling groceries. It was an attempt to use the power of the law to reduce competition.
Last year, SB 528 (Burton) got what I call the “Sausage Bill of the Year Award.” The bill, which was described in the Senate bill analysis as “clarifying and technical amendments to the laws of the Public Employees’ Retirement System” would have instead boosted the pensions of several former legislators who had not earned them. Because of the public outcry after the session was over and following newspaper stories across the state, the big box bill and SB 528 were eventually vetoed.
The Legislature should not have to rely on a Governor to veto putrid sausage. The Legislature needs to make a firm commitment to deliberative democracy rather than the needs of the special interest groups. Allow each legislator to introduce a maximum of 10 bills or less each session would cut down on the number of special interest bills that are carried. More sunshine on the entire process would also help. Passing and strictly enforcing a joint rule that provides that there will be no floor amendments during the last two weeks of session would go a long way toward exposing smelly bills before they have a chance of passage.
Let’s close down the Capitol Sausage Factor and restore this institution as our Founding Fathers intended. Otherwise, we should just replace the statue of Isabella and Ferdinand in the Capitol Rotunda with one of Jimmy Dean.
August 31, 2001