Editorial: Do-nothing Politics;
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The San Francisco Chronicle
Jun 25, 2002

by John Diaz, Editorial Page Editor

Editorial: Do-nothing Politics;

When the going gets tough, more and more lawmakers are taking a walk
An outbreak of spinelessness has struck the California Assembly.

Significant bills are failing because legislators are turning strategically silent or absent at key moments. The problem is, the rules require a majority of all committee members - not just those who actually bother to vote - and too many Assembly members are ducking the tough issues.

Inside the Capitol, it's known as "staying off" or "laying off" a bill . . . or "taking a walk."

Veteran legislators and lobbyists say there is no question that "walks" are becoming more prevalent.

Just look at the list of bills that have been defeated, either in committee or on the Assembly floor, with a potentially pivotal mass of legislators refusing to vote.

Last week alone, measures to give Californians the power to stop the onslaught of junk faxes (SB1358) and to give consumers the ability to decide whether to take their claims against HMOs to arbitration or court (SB458) were rejected in committees where critical numbers of Democrats abstained from voting. On the Assembly floor, bills to reform accounting practices (AB1995) and prohibit the use of Indian mascots by public schools (AB2115) ran into large blocs of abstainers this spring. Legislation to combat global warming (AB1058) made it through the Assembly on the initial round with only one vote to spare - and 14 nonvoters - but fell into limbo as final passage approached and even more legislators started "staying off" the bill. A bill to regulate indoor air pollution (AB2332) came up 10 votes short on the Assembly floor, with 14 nonvoters. Last September, a bill to increase the use of renewable fuels in electrical generation (SB532) stalled in the Appropriations Committee - 7 yes, 3 no, 8 nonvoters.

One of last year's most significant consumer protection bills - to force banks to get customer permission before sharing personal financial information (SB773) - sank in the Assembly amid a flurry of Democratic abstentions.

The list goes on. And there is a pattern to the timidity.

"The trend seems to be most significant among the so-called Business Democrats who refuse to vote for or against a bill by a fellow Democrat that would help consumers, the environment or working people . . . if it is opposed by big business," said Bill Magavern, a Sierra Club lobbyist. "They (abstain) knowing full well that by not voting, they're killing the bill."

In other words, they're protecting their voting records - and ability to attract corporate campaign donations - by doing nothing.

"Cowardly is a word that jumps to mind," said Shelley Curran, a Consumers Union lobbyist, who said she is seeing more and more bills die because legislators are out of the room - or sitting silent - when the roll is called.

Jamie Court, director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, became so infuriated by the Health Committee's nonaction on the HMO bill last week (6 yes, 6 no, 7 nonvoters) that he fired off a letter to Speaker Herb Wesson suggesting that the $124,000-a-year Assembly members should not be paid for the "workdays" on which they fail to vote.

"Politicians must either live with the consequences of voting against the public interest or support it, but they must take a stand," Court wrote. "Not voting has become the modus operandi of corruption without consequence."

In a telephone interview Thursday, Wesson said he had not detected any uptick in abstentions. "Now that you put this on my mind, I'll look at it," Wesson said. "Through my eyes, I don't see a change."

We suggested to Wesson that legislators are elected to make decisions - and asked him if he believed they have an obligation to vote up or down on issues of importance to their constituents.

"That's a legitimate question," acknowledged Wesson, who was careful not to criticize his caucus members. "That's what I do, but that's me."

Why are these "intentional walks" happening most often on big bills in the Assembly, where Democrats control 50 of the 80 seats?

There are several theories, starting with the emergence of the Assembly's "Business Democrats," a growing group of ambitious moderates determined to promote the economy and expand the party's appeal beyond its traditional base of labor, environmental and consumer groups. It's a precarious balancing act, especially since most of the Business Dems come from affluent suburbs, Silicon Valley or agricultural areas where the party's registration edge is thin or nonexistent. The abstentions help give them cover to be all things to all people.

Another factor, some legislators believe, is Gov. Gray Davis' aloof approach to lawmaking. Davis rarely commits himself on major legislation before it reaches his desk. So when confronted with a tough issue, the more jittery politicians are left wondering whether they might anger the powerful business lobby by voting "yes" on a consumer or environmental issue, only to have Davis later veto the bill.

Most of the abstainers insist their inaction has nothing to do with timidity, indecision or cowardice. They say abstentions are often "a courtesy" to the author, especially for colleagues of the same party. The abstention has the same effect as a "no" vote, but without the public sting.

Assemblywoman Rebecca Cohn, who is cited by many consumer and environmental lobbyists as a candidate for Most Likely to Abstain, defended the "custom" of courtesy nonvoting. "With term limits, you have to be even more respectful of your colleagues to get anything done in this place," she said, adding that she has abstained on just 19 of 2,800 votes. She said her abstentions sometimes result from "unanswered questions" on complex bills, such as the right-to-sue-HMOs bill in committee last week. On Monday, Cohn said her concerns have been addressed and she now would vote for SB458.

Is the real motivation a promotion of collegiality or an avoidance of controversy?

One Assembly Democrat described the recent floor vote on AB2115, which would have prohibited public schools from using Indian mascots. It was a delicate issue, a vote that could easily be subject to ridicule in conservative quarters. The lights on the tally board in the Assembly chamber flickered about as fingers tested the wind. Votes kept switching between "yes" and "abstain." It needed 41 to pass.

"It was almost comical," the veteran legislator said. "The (yes) vote would inch up toward 35 and a few votes would come off. It would go down and then inch back up again, and more votes would come off."

None of the waffling Democrats wanted to be the decisive 41st vote, but none wanted to take what could be seen in progressive circles as a culturally insensitive position. When the dance stopped, the count was 29 yes, 35 no and 16 nonvoters. Measure rejected.

This duck-the-issue game is not acceptable, particularly for legislators who regard themselves as "citizen-politicians," meaning just about everyone inside the Capitol. They are not sent to Sacramento to please each other, to coddle corporations for contributions or even to keep their voting records pillow-soft in anticipation of campaigns for higher office.

Members of the California Assembly are elected to make tough choices and to serve their constituents. And they are elected to vote, as defined by "yes" and "no."

Too many of them are not doing their job.
Sponsor: Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Whittier
Its defeat means: HMOs can require you in advance to take any potential treatment-rejection claims to arbitration, instead of court, as a condition of coverage.
The vote: rejected by Assembly Health Committee, June 18. (6 yes, 6 no.) Reconsideration possible today.
The non-voters:
Wilma Chan, D-Alameda
Ed Chavez, D-La Puente
Rebecca Cohn, D-Saratoga
Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Chino
Keith Richman, R-Northridge
George Runner, R-Lancaster
Sponsor: Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Redondo Beach
Its defeat means: Homeowners and businesses cannot stop marketing companies from tying up their fax machines with unwanted solicitations.
The vote: rejected by Assembly Business and Professions Committee, June 18. (4 yes, 1 no).Reconsideration possible today.
The non-voters:
Russ Bogh, R-Yucaipa
Tony Cardenas, D-Sylmar
David Kelley, R-Hemet
Lynne Leach, R-Walnut Creek
Lou Papan, D-Millbrae
Phil Wyman, R-Tehachapi
Sponsor: Assemblyman Lou Correa, D-Anaheim
Its defeat means: California loses a chance to prohibit potential conflicts of interest by accounting firms that do both auditing and consulting for the same clients.
The vote: rejected on Assembly floor, May 31.(23 yes, 31 no).
The non-voters:
Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara
Dion Aroner, D-Berkeley
Thomas Calderon, D-Montebello
Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg
Wilma Chan, D-Alameda
Ed Chavez, D-La Puente
Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park
Rebecca Cohn, D-Saratoga
Manny Diaz, D-San Jose
John Dutra, D-Fremont
Bob Hertzberg, D-Sherman Oaks
Jerome Horton, D-Inglewood
Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara
Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego
Carol Liu, D-La Canada
Barbara Matthews, D-Tracy
Carole Migden, D-San Francisco
George Nakano, D-Torrance
Joe Nation, D-San Rafael
Lou Papan, D-Millbrae
Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills
Simon Salinas, D-Salinas
Kevin Shelley, D-San Francisco
Juan Vargas, D-San Diego
Carl Washington, D-Paramount
Sponsor: Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles
Its defeat means: Public schools can continue to use Indian names and mascots.
The vote: rejected on Assembly floor, May 28. (29 yes, 35 no).
The non-voters:
Thomas Calderon, D-Montebello
Tony Cardenas, D-Sylmar
Ed Chavez, D-La Puente
John Dutra, D-Fremont
Dario Frommer, D-Los Feliz
Sally Havice, D-Cerritos
Bob Hertzberg, D-Sherman Oaks
Jerome Horton, D-Inglewood
Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara
Carol Liu, D-La Canada
Barbara Matthews, D-Tracy
Rod Pacheco, R-Riverside
Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto
Juan Vargas, D-San Diego
Carl Washington, D-Paramount
These two Bay Area lawmakers set the pace for avoiding votes on politically sensitive bills. Their misses include:

Rebecca Cohn, D-Saratoga
SB458 HMO arbitration
SB773 Financial privacy
AB1995 Accounting reform
AB2332 Indoor air pollution.

Barbara Matthews, D-Tracy
SB773 Financial privacy
AB1058 Global warming
AB1995 Accounting reform
AB2115 Indian mascots
AB2332 Indoor air pollution
Do you expect your elected representatives to vote "yes" or "no" on important legislation?
Let us know what you think - and let them know what you think.
- John Diaz, editorial page editor: jdiaz@sfchronicle.com.

You can send us letters to the editor by e-mail to: letters@sfchronicle.com.

Or by postal mail to:
Letters to the Editor
San Francisco Chronicle
901 Mission St.
San Francisco CA 94103.

Let Speaker Herb Wesson know what you think about the Assembly's inaction. E-mail him at: assemblymember.wesson@assembly.ca.gov.

You can find the name and contact information for your state legislators by typing in your ZIP-code at: www.leginfo.ca.gov/yourleg.html.

And you can send postal mail to any legislator at:
The State Capitol,
Sacramento, CA 95814

The full history of roll calls on any of the bills mentioned on this page can be found by going to www.leginfo.ca.gov and clicking on "Bill Information."

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