Patterico's Pontifications


More Legislative Nonsense from the Avocado Republic

Filed under: General — JVW @ 6:04 pm

[guest post by JVW]

California, if nothing else, is an abject lesson in the perils of living in a mono-party state. Democrats have dominated the state legislature since 1975, save for a brief respite in 1995-96 when the GOP had a narrow Assembly majority, though a quisling GOP Assemblyman voted to keep Democrat Willie Brown as Assembly Speaker. But other than that fluke of political chicanery, it’s been Democrats running things in the capitol building, and for most of the time since 2013 they have enjoyed a super-majority which allows them absolute power to steamroll their political opponents.

Thus, it will come as no surprise to anyone that part of that steamroller is the ability to avoid having members ever cast a “no” vote. A piece from CalMatters explains how this works, and provides ample clues to why it ought to be considered an affront to democracy:

Mike Fong has cast more than 6,000 votes since he joined the state Assembly in 2022 and never once voted “no.” Pilar Schiavo is newer to the Assembly, but she has yet to vote “no” after more than 2,000 opportunities.

Remarkably, their Democratic colleagues in the Legislature are not much different. Using our new Digital Democracy database, CalMatters examined more than 1 million votes cast by current legislators since 2017 and found Democrats vote “no” on average less than 1% of the time.

Why? It’s not something they want to talk about. Democrats have had super-majorities in both legislative chambers since 2019, so most votes involve bills from their political colleagues. But the legislative leaders and lawmakers contacted by CalMatters declined repeated requests to explain a pattern that might appear like a rubber stamp for deals made out of public view. And it seems to be sanctioned by leaders.

“There’s only two fucking buttons on your desk: There’s a green button, and there’s a red button,” then-Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told the California Labor Federation last year in remarks reported by Politico. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the green button is the labor button. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the green button means you’re doing the right thing, and the red button means that you’re an asshole.”

Rendon’s office declined to comment or make him available for an interview.

That’s a pretty good outline of why the California Legislature has become such a joke. Instead of casting a “no” vote on a contentious issue that might rile up a key constituency of the Democrat caucus, legislators remain silent at strategic moments, knowing that their party has enough votes to spare. This allows the legislator to have it both ways: no record of him supporting a bill which might anger one important lobby group, yet also no record of him voting against the bill which might anger another important lobby group. The piece points out that last year there were 15 bills which died on the Assembly floor, not because they were voted down but for a lack of sufficient numbers of Democrats willing to go on record with a “yes” vote.

And this gamesmanship often happens on very important bills, the most notorious example of which was last summer, when anti-incarceration leftists in the Assembly withheld votes in a committee to advance a bill which increased penalties for people convicted of trafficking minor children. Fortunately in this case the media took notice and the outcry was enough to embarrass Democrats into reconsidering and ultimately passing the measure. It’s worth noting that the initial inclination was to let it die, not from receiving a majority of “no” votes, but from failing to receive enough “yes” votes as cowardly ideologues refuse to cast a controversial vote either way.

And even when a majority politician does go on the record with a vote, they reserve the right to revoke that vote if it doesn’t turn out to be necessary:

In another example last year, the former chairperson of the Assembly Public Safety Committee cast a “no” vote to kill a bill, AB 367, that would have led to longer prison sentences for fentanyl dealers. Seconds later, he withdrew his vote after all five of his fellow Democrats on the committee killed the bill by not voting.

The then-chairperson, Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat who is running for Los Angeles City Council when his term expires this year, didn’t return a message from CalMatters.

He told the committee last spring that he was a mortician during the crack cocaine epidemic, so he empathized with families who lost loved ones to fentanyl, but he sided with activists who testified that people of color have unfairly and disproportionately borne the brunt of harsh sentences for drug crimes.

“Our communities were decimated by the War on Drugs,” he said.

I’m sure that many of his constituents might point out to Assemblyman Jones-Sawyer that their communities are also “decimated” by the crisis of opioid addiction. Nevertheless, I can almost respect him for casting the “no” vote (even if I mostly disagree with him on his rationale), but I have nothing but contempt for his decision to change his vote to “not voting” once it became clear the bill wouldn’t pass the committee. That is the sort of garbage which understandably gives the public such a low opinion of our elected officials.

The article goes on to record the huge number of Democrats who fail to vote rather than vote “no” on bills, and lists some whose numbers are ridiculously out of whack. The new Assembly Speaker, Robert Rivas, has cast only nine “no” votes in his more than 12,000 recorded votes over the past six years, compared to 673 times in which he failed to vote. Naturally he and other vote-shirkers did not respond to the reporter’s request for comment.

Republicans fail to vote at a higher rate than even Democrats do, but given that they are the super-minority party and have very little influence on the bills that reach committee desks and the chamber floors, it’s somewhat more understandable if not really that admirable. James Gallagher, the Assembly’s Republican leader, told CalMatters that oftentimes the Republicans might be interested in supporting a certain bill, except they have concerns about the language of the legislation or else want to address potential unintended consequences of the bill. Of course those concerns are almost always ignored by the majority and Republicans are not given the opportunity to offer amendments. Thus, even though Republican members don’t necessarily oppose a particular bill, they might have enough ambivalence about it to decide that neither a “yes” nor a “no” vote is appropriate. Assemblyman Gallagher suggests that instead of allowing for the non-voting option, members should be forced to formally announce that they are abstaining from voting, since that would clarify whether the member was absent from the chamber that day or whether they were present and not willing to go on the record.

But I like what former Democrat Assemblyman Mike Gatto has to say. While acknowledging that oftentimes withholding a vote avoids angering an activist group or risking reprisals from party leadership or just disappointing a friendly colleague, he still counsels fortitude: “When people talk about how a very strange or poorly conceived proposal made it all the way through the Legislature, the answer is because very few people stood up and said, ‘This is bunk.’ When people do, and they do it with something as clear and unambiguous as a ‘no’ vote, it encourages other people to have the same courage to tell a lawmaker, politely, that this idea might not be the best one.”

Amen to that.


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