Big Daddy

Big Daddy

Dear Big Daddy,
Didn’t there used to be a rule about reading on the floor of the Assembly or Senate? Now, every time I look up, some lawmaker or another is reading from a script. What gives?
 –Befuddled in Bolinas

Dear Befuddled,
Be happy that they can read (well, most of them). This is a helpful skill when it comes to writing legislation that affects 38 million people.

What are they reading? If it’s “Catch-22” or “A Coffin for Dimitrios” or “1434,” I say more power to them (yes, Amazon delivers to, um, heaven). If it’s remarks scripted by their staff, then it depends on the remarks. And the staff. Heck, since most of the Capitol press corps are now working for some Capitol office or interest group, there’s probably a stronger crop of prepared remark preparers than there has ever been around here. Though, as much as I used to hate the press, that ain’t necessarily something to celebrate.

Especially when so many of those prepared remarks read like they were written by the Committee to Not Offend Anyone, or the Coalition of Not Exactly Saying What You Mean, or even the League of Just Getting Up to Talk Because It Looks Bad If You Don’t At Least Some of the Time And I’m Kind Of Worried About a Primary Challenge. Even a legislator’s life is too short to fill it with meaningless babble, and covering your ass ought to be a job for your pants, not your lowly staff.

After all, thoughtful discourse in the marketplace of ideas is why we came to Sacramento in the first place, right? Yeah, right.  

The problem with scripted remarks is there’s no room for error, no spontaneity, or any of the other things that make comments interesting.

Things like, “This is the worst disaster since I was elected governor” (Pat Brown), or “I don’t know what this is all about, but please shoot straight” (Storm trooper, Night of the Long Knives) or “Money is the mother’s milk of politics” (me) or “It seems to me obvious that the whole world can’t eat an American diet” (Jerry Brown).

You don’t get comments like that from scripted remarks, I’ll wager. Heck, as much as I used to battle the Brown clan, we probably couldn’t get a more quotable governor unless we elected Yogi Berra.

And that’s exactly why scripted remarks are so common. Who wants to take a chance on putting a big foot in a big mouth? Sure, it might make people remember you fondly … as they refer to you as “former Assemblyman.”

You never know what’s going to pop out of someone’s mouth on the floor of the Legislature. So much depends on the emotions of the moment, the heat of the battle.
People like to listen to people who like to talk well, even in the Legislature. I learned that from Sidney Greenstreet, and truer words were never spoken, except for the time I told David Roberti it was time to move to a one-house Legislature.

David didn’t like the idea, but the lobbyists loved it – it’s easier to lobby one house than two – and one wonders where we’d be known if Sacramento had a unicameral Legislature. Probably better off, at least for the lobbyists. Though, of course, that still depends on if you’re trying to pass something (unicameral good) or stop something (in that case, unicameral bad). Either way, the lobbyists still get paid.

But it hardly matters if you have one chamber or 120 now that we’re in the term limits era. In the House of Commons they refer to “backbenchers,” but after two decades of the legislative quality depletion act, a backbench is all we got.

Lobbyists know how to read, too. They’re not on the floors – at least, they’re not supposed to be – but they read everything, including the bills. They know more about the bills than the electeds, and sometimes they write the remarks that the electeds read during debate. Hell, a lot of times they even write the bills. Talk about outsourcing…though I’ doubt sure version is saving us money.

Maybe that’s the real rub in scripted comments: You can see the lips moving, but you never know who you’re really listening to.

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