Dear Big Daddy,
I'm a freshman Assembly staffer and I'm wrapping up my first legislative
session. August has been completely weird and everybody is getting more
frantic by the day. Why is everything put off until the last minute?
Why do lawmakers put everything off until the last minute?
Well, let me ask you this:
Why does every suave, dashing, well-read powerful leader with great taste
make scotch their drink of choice?
Why do fools rush in where angels fear to tread?
Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?
Because they can.
There is actually a method to the madness and I'd break the frantic,
end-of-session behavior into three different categories: 1)
Crystallization, 2) Parkinson's Law, and 3) Low-Ball.
Crystallization is the phenomenon whereby the big deals only come together
as the Legislature begins to draw to a close. The players involved in the
game have been playing chicken, betting, raising and bluffing one another
for the better part of eight months, but once August 31 is in sight, someone
has to call the hand and put the deal together. Back when being a member of
the California Legislature actually meant something, this meant the
governor, the assembly speaker, or the senate president pro tem would be the
ones running the table and negotiating the deal. These days, it's more
likely one particular mother's milk provider who will be the one calling the
shots, with all the other parties climbing on board and asking the
Legislature to ratify what they've cooked up. It's also known as
"compromising to the lowest denominator" and it gives leadership a bad name.
The fundamental premise of Parkinson's Law, which is the category you can
stuff the lion's share of the bills (and their authors) into, is that "work
expands so as to fill the time available for its completion" and nowhere is
that more evident than the California state Legislature. It's become the
poster child for procrastination. Lawmakers, staff and lobbyists treat the
bill introduction, policy and fiscal committee, amendment, ballot, and other
deadlines as advisory only. The end of a two-year legislative session is
really the only "true" deadline these folks every really face, so they
lollygag their way into August before quickly realizing that there are no
more rule waivers to be had and the window to put a bill on the Governor's
desk will indeed close.
Big Daddy's final category, the Low-Ballers, are an amazing group of people
to watch, and the end of session is where they earn their keep. A successful
low-baller is better than W.C. Fields' favorite child, because if he's doing
his job right, he is neither seen nor heard.
Low-ballers can be members, staff or lobbyists, but, generally, you'll find
at least two of the parties involved in any successful low-ball. Unlike the
Parkinson's Law crowd, they're procrastinators with a purpose, playing
shuffleboard and working on their tans all spring and summer long, just
waiting until the last week of session so they can slip something into a
bill without anyone being the wiser. These folks don't want to be noticed.
Rather, they're counting on the chaos and confusion of the two houses during
the last week of session so they can come in under the radar and drop their
play into a bill, hoping that no one notices it until September 1, when it's
too late for anyone but the governor to do anything about it.
How can you best survive the bedlam? Well, given that you're reading this on
the final day of session, I can only hope you've gotten the bills you're
responsible for staffing out of the pompous and rarified air of the state
Senate. At this point, the best advice I can give you is to get your boss to
take your bills up early in the morning so you can enjoy the entire evening.
Since you're going through it for the first time, bring a camera. Go pitch
pennies into Isabella at midnight, then raise a highball filled with scotch
and promise yourself that next year, the Legislature will return to the
glory days of yesteryear.
Hey, it's the last night of session, a time when dreams are dashed and
fantasies are fulfilled. Why isn't Big Daddy entitled to a fantasy of his