As the calendar shifts into August, there’s less than a month to go in the wildest legislative session in recent memory.
The turning of the calendar also marks the return of the Legislature’s annual end-of-session games. No, I’m not talking about “legislative bingo” (which is a real thing where legislators are given a typically silly word or phrase like strategery to try and use in their floor remarks), but rather legislative hostage taking.
Capitol veterans know that the big end-of-session battles to watch are not between Democrats and Republicans; they’re between the Assembly and Senate.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon fired the opening salvo last week when he sent an e-mail to Assembly Members postponing the next day’s committee hearings.
The reason? “I am concerned,” he wrote, “about the imbalance of bills yet to be considered in each house.” So far, the Senate’s legislative priorities have fared much better than the Assembly’s.
There’s often legislative “hostage taking” in the final days of session. Assembly Member s get mad that the Senate is holding up their bills and vice versa. To apply pressure, other legislation is bottled up as leverage. The disputes are even hotter if the Assembly Speaker and the Senate President Pro Tem did not see eye to eye on things. Typically, the disputes are resolved, and the bills held hostage released.
As a young legislative staffer, I was made a very public example of legislative hostage taking. I was staffing a noncontroversial bill that was on the consent calendar. My boss at the time was leading the effort to deny rule waivers for Senate bills. Rule waivers are often needed at the end of session to ensure bills have sufficient time to clear the process before the Legislature adjourns.
My legislation was the Senate’s opportunity for revenge. The bill was on the consent calendar for its final Senate policy committee hearing. Assured of its passage, my boss left the Capitol early that day for a district engagement. That’s when the “fun” began.
Democrats pulled the bill off the consent calendar. In my boss’ absence, I had to present the bill before the committee, quickly becoming a verbal punching bag. I was subjected to twenty minutes of senators complaining about rule waivers. My friends sent around screen captures of me squirming at the podium. Fortunately, the senators took pity on me and passed the bill.
This example underscores how personally legislators take their bills, and how much they strive to “one up” the other house.
Fast forward to 2020. Rendon likely took this provocative action for two reasons.
First, the Senate has been much more focused on bills related to COVID-19, social unrest, homelessness, and wildfires. Legislation on other topics have been de-emphasized by Senate policy committees, and in some cases, not given a policy hearing at all. Rendon does not subscribe to this philosophy and wants to see the Senate act on a myriad of bills promoting liberal priorities authored by Assembly Members.
COVID-19 is also dividing the houses. With two Assembly Members and several staff members testing positive for the virus, Rendon announced that lawmakers who are older or have underlying health issues could engage in proxy voting.
As I’ve written previously, this is very controversial and likely illegal without a state constitutional amendment. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins in not allowing proxy or remote voting on the floor, though the Senate is allowing remote voting in committee hearings (which the Assembly considers to be unconstitutional).
The calendar further complicates this bicameral feud. Forced to take an unexpectedly long summer recess due to the Capitol COVID-19 outbreak, there are fewer days to hold committee hearings. According to the Sacramento Bee, “because the Senate is scheduled to consider more bills, around 540 according to (a legislative) document, it will meet for policy hearings on Fridays and Saturdays” and “Assembly Members are being encouraged to pare their bills down if they have a dozen or more still alive.”
In addition, the State Constitution requires that the Legislature adjourn sine die by August 31 at Midnight in even years. Legislators can’t extend the deadline if they desired.
Ultimately, Gov. Newsom may resolve this debate as he could call a special session for September or October to act on these unresolved issues, with CALmatters reporting that he was “evasive” on the issue at a press conference last week.
At the end of the day, I always preferred legislative bingo to hostage taking – regardless of how cringeworthy some of the bingo words and phrases were.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.