Reforms Loosen Grip of Legislative Leaders

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


After California’s stringent term limits were enacted in 1990, the legislative power equation in Sacramento shifted noticeably. For nearly a quarter of a century, clout has been concentrated in the offices of the Senate President pro Tempore and the Speaker of the Assembly.  Individual members have been generally expected to toe the line.  However, this year’s legislative session may be a sign that the concentration of power has been diluted somewhat and that the voices of individual legislators may be becoming relevant again.

Since former Speakers Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown laid out the ground rules, contributions from business, labor, trial lawyers, medical groups and Indian gaming tribes have largely flowed into leadership campaign funds that are doled out by Senate and Assembly leaders, who have also steered interest groups to support their favored candidates.    Candidates seeking first-term seats, nervous incumbents up for reelection and legislators looking to jump to another office have always needed to play nice with the legislative leaders, who also controlled committee assignments, staff and office space.  The 1990 term limits law created a game of political musical chairs, where officeholders constantly jumped from one office to another—an expensive proposition, escalating the demands of many lawmakers hungry for the political money controlled by the legislative leaders. 

That dependence has been weakened by recent reforms enacted by voters.

Reapportionment used to be the big club with which legislative leaders kept members in line.  That power has shifted to an independent commission, which is mandated to ignoreincumbents’ interests.

The top-two primary system also means that lawmakers can’t relax simply because they have districts safe for their party; they could face a member of their own party in a run-off.  They also have to pay attention to their whole electorate, since Republican votes may be decisive in a solid Democratic district and vice versa; that often means bucking the legislative agenda of their own party’s leadership

The biggest change may result from the resetting of term limits to allow lawmakers to stay for 12 years in one house of the legislature.  Currently, 43 of the 52 Democrats in the Assembly can keep their seats through 2024 or 2026; that includes the newly designated Speaker, Anthony Rendon, (D-Lakewood), who was first elected to the Assembly in 2012.  By contrast, the current Speaker—Toni Atkins—was elected in 2010, under the old term limits, and will be out of the Assembly after the 2016 elections.

Since incumbent legislators rarely lose bids for re-election, it’s no wonder that they may now feel a greater sense of security and independence. When an issue raises concerns within a member’s district and he or she hears loudly from his or her constituents, it may be a lot easier for a lawmaker not only to buck legislative leaders; but even to say no to a popular governor.

The biggest indicator of this shift in the legislative power equation was the failure to pass a key element of SB 350, the climate change legislation authored by Senate President pro Tempore Kevin De Leon and backed by Governor Jerry Brown.  In the end, the provisions relating to reducing gasoline consumption had to be stripped from the bill because a number of moderate Democrats in the Assembly refused to go along with them.  When a popular Democratic Governor and the top State Senate leader can’t win on an issue with as much public support as climate change has, something is up.

This wasn’t just about the barrels of money that the oil industry spent on advertising and advocacy or on the industry’s campaign contributions. This was about a “new” breed of legislators –or rather another iteration of the “Mod Squad,” a group of about a dozen or so moderate, business-friendly Democrats in the Assembly, formed in the late 1990’s, who grew in influence and clout with the recall of Democratic Governor Gray Davis and his replacement by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Their ranks have grown with the shift to the top-two primary, which gave business interests a route to influence the make-up of a Legislature likely to be controlled by Democrats for some time to come.

Today’s “Mods” can hang around the lower house a lot longer. According to election data guru Paul Mitchell, “While 16 of the 80 Assembly are terming out in 2016, there will be no termed out members in 2018, none in 2020 and none in 2022.” And to paraphrase the late Senator Alben Barkley, to be a great legislator first you have to get elected—and reelected. That takes reflecting your district’s concerns. And, oh yes, money.

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