In the late 1970s, a few years after the post-Watergate “reformers” in the U.S. Congress broke the hold of a few curmudgeons who had served as autocratic committee chairman since time began and widely dispersed power by creating 172 new subcommittees and subcommittee chairmanships, veteran Congressman Morris Udall (D-Arizona) joked with a reporter that whenever he would approach a newly elected Democratic Congressman, whose name he hadn’t yet mastered, he would simply say, “Good morning, Mr. Chairman,” as they passed in the hallway. Udall knew, because of the creation of so many new subcommittee chairmanships, that about half the time he’d be right.
Like a little brother who has learned all the bad habits of his older brother, the California Legislature has, with zest and vigor, been creating new committees with seemingly no adult supervision. While the California is made up of 120 legislators (40 State Senators and 80 Assembly members), it has amazingly, at last count, 167 committees. When the Creator instructed us to “be fruitful and multiply,” I have funny feeling that the Almighty wasn’t talking about the Legislature’s committee system.
When the first California Legislature convened, the State Senate and Assembly have managed to conduct all their business with about a dozen standing committees. But with the election of a new Assembly Speaker and Senate Pro Tempore every few years, these new leaders somehow feel compelled, to create new committees rather than prioritizing the issues of weightiest importance to the public and requiring that the Legislature focus its attention on the big public policy problems.
At last count, the Assembly has 29 standing committees while the State Senate has 25 standing committees. And although most of the 101 Select Committees and Subcommittees never meet, each has a Chairman and a budget. All this creation stuff might be all worth it if the “Assembly Select Committee on the Aging of the Baby Boomers” – yep, it’s a real committee – produced a thoroughly researched report with a one-sentence conclusion – “We have determined beyond a reasonable doubt that the Baby Boomers are, like all previous generations, turning into old codgers.” Thank you very much.
My favorite new standing committee in the Assembly is the “Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism, and Internet Media Committee.” I call this the “Fun Committee,” for short. And although hundreds of bills have been referred to the other 28 standing committees, the “Fun Committee” has received only two bills so far. One of them is AB 2218 (Keeley), which would create a Ski Safety Commission to develop uniform hazard signs to be posted at all ski areas. The bill will help ensure that it is absolutely clear to every skier and snowboarder, from Berkeley to Bangladesh, that running into pine trees and other immovable objects is not recommended. And then there is AB 2789 (Lowenthal), which would require the state licensing of Athletic Trainers. I wonder if the licensing exam will ask our prospective Athletic Trainer whether, as soon as it’s clear that the championship is at hand, it’s appropriate to pour a big bucket of Gatorade over the Coach’s head. Timing is everything. Frankly, I feel a little sorry for the new Chairman of the “Fun Committee.” Crafting legislation in this area may not provide an ambitious politician with an E-Ticket to the Statesmen Hall of Fame.
Although I have made some light of what appears to be a highly dysfunctional committee structure in the Legislature, one has to stop laughing when one arrives at the disturbing conclusion that this committee structure has a clear and malignant purpose. It’s purpose is far from the intentions of the Founding Fathers. The driving purpose of the current committee structure seems to be more about squeezing “juice” – campaign funds – from special interest groups than crafting wise public policy. The formation of more committees means that each bill must pass through more tollbooths than a driver on the New Jersey Turnpike. And when numerous members are assigned to “juice committees,” like the Governmental Organization Committee, which regulates gambling, alcohol, and tobacco, the regulated special interests and industries feel compelled to protect their interests by contributing money to all the members of this bloated 23-person committee.
Is this anyway to conduct the people’s business? A freshman legislator told me a few days ago that he had been assigned to two committees that meet at the same time. Is it right to expect him and other legislators in the same situation to run through the halls of the Capitol Building, from hearing room to hearing room, catching bits and pieces of testimony here and there, to make a deliberative choice in casting his vote?
The latest dismal trend is for legislative leaders to publicly announce the names of legislators who as “Committee Chair Designees” will “assume their responsibilities in the future.” In effect, this creates “Shadow Chairman” for each committee. This novel “juice extraction method” is effective because the special interest groups never know when one or more of these “Shadow Chairman” will actually assume their official duties and take action on bills. From the view of a special interest group, it is financially prudent to pay protection money to both the current Chairman and the “Shadow Chairman.” This little maneuver allows the Legislature to double its money. Is anyone ashamed of this corrupt practice?
The Legislature’s leadership created the system of Shadow Chairman and the Juice Committee Machine, and they can eliminate them tomorrow. Will they? It would certainly take statesmanship. We should not settle for less.
March 28, 2002
Postscript: Both AB 2218 and AB 2789 were not enacted into law.