Would California Be Better Off With Part-Time Legislators Rather Than Professional Politicians?

California lawmakers have sent legislation to Gov. Jerry Brown that will allow them to live outside the districts they “represent.” To some, Senate Bill 1250 simply frees legislators to live and work in Sacramento while representing the folks back home. Others argue it lets lawmakers deceive their constituents.

We see both sides. But we also see what both sides are missing: If lawmakers’ residency has risen to the level of an issue that needed to be legislated, lawmakers are spending too much time in Sacramento.

When the founders were putting this country together, they imagined a federal system governed by citizen lawmakers. They were skeptical of full-time professional career politicians.

The brilliant mind of Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was wary of “office hunters.” James Madison said lawmakers should be “called for the most part from pursuits of a private nature and continued in appointment for a short period of office.”

George Mason, who primarily wrote both the Virginia Declaration of Rights and Virginia’s constitution, felt “nothing so strongly impels a man to regard the interest of his constituents, as the certainty of returning to the general mass of the people, from whence he was taken, where he must participate in their burdens.”

California had a part-time legislature a half-century ago. A group called the Citizen Legislature Initiative campaigned to bring it back earlier in the decade through a ballot measure. It never made it to the voters. But that doesn’t undercut is value as an instrument of good.

Lawmakers owe it to their constituents to be accessible, not out of reach. If they spend nearly all their days in Sacramento, that relationship is severed. Lawmakers also need to remember what it’s like to live an everyday life, and not out of touch. But they can’t do that when they exist in a protective bubble that is also largely an echo chamber that reinforces bad ideas.

At the same time part-time legislatures strengthen relationships with voters, they also limit lawmakers’ potential for mischief. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who supported the 2012 effort to return the California Legislature to part-time status, has imagined the damage lawmakers can do when they are left to make policy year-round.

“If you have a full-time legislature, the void is filled — and it’s filled with, a lot of times, just nonsensical stuff,” he said.

We’ve seen this happen time and again in Sacramento. While tens of millions of Californians are going through their everyday struggles, lawmakers have been busy pursuing and passing legislation that makes sense only to them, the lobbyists who have their ears, and various busybodies. We’re thinking of the regulation of cow flatulence; outlawing plastic straws from being served in restaurants except upon request, and restricting the drinks that can be included in restaurants’ kids meals to milk and water.

Lawmakers and various busybodies have also had plenty of time to dream up such policy gems as forcing the state to power its electricity grid from on green energy sources; banning cars that burn gasoline; a climate fight that won’t make much difference, and every counterproductive attempt to relieve the housing crisis.

All are an embarrassment to California and indisputable proof that a mind engaged in too much legislating is the devil’s workshop. Better that the mind is idle — or better yet at work in a productive activity in the home district.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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