Day Three on the Floor

With session rapidly coming to a head—and a close no later than Thursday, August 31st, Assemblymember
Jackie Goldberg is focusing on the way the process of voting works when the “leadership” starts turning the screws on its members. Here she talks about how “Speakerizing” works in action, focusing on AB 1381— the bill sought by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to provide him with control over the LA Unified School District.
It is no secret that the Speaker, Fabian Nunez, is a close friend of the Mayor and wanted this bill to pass. Here’s Jackie’s view of how the dance was done:
Now, at 3:30 in the afternoon, I am going to try to help you understand the role of Leadership in the Assembly. The Assembly has 80 members, 48 of whom are Democrats. The majority party essentially selects the Speaker of the Assembly, who becomes extremely powerful by virtue of that election.
The Speaker is charged first and foremost with keeping her/his party in the majority. The majority party has all but total control of who will chair each of the committees. Each committee has a majority of members who are from the majority party. The Speaker decides a member’s office size and location. The Speaker sets each member’s budget for staff, on which committees they will serve, and if they will chair a committee. Through the Majority Leader, always a trusted member of the Speaker’s team, the Speaker controls the movement of bills once they are on the floor. The Speaker can remove members of committees for one day if they are not voting on a bill important to the Speaker, and replace them with members who will vote as the Speaker wants. The other close members of the Speaker’s team are the chairs of the Appropriations Committee, the Budget Committee, and the Rules Committee.
The Rules Committee decides which and how many committees each bill must pass before coming to the floor for a vote. The Appropriations Committee Chair literally sits down with the Speaker to decide which bills would get out of Appropriations, which should be amended there, and which should be killed. And the Budget Chair works closely with the Speaker on fashioning the deals that allow the various bills to be funded if and when they pass the policy committee. These are powers that make the Speaker almost king-like!
So let’s look at how these awesome powers permit the Speaker to get what he wants done. Take for example AB 1381. AB 1381 started out life as a bill by Speaker Nunez that would help set up vegetable gardens at some of the state’s elementary schools. Then when Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa decided he wanted to “take over” control of the LAUSD public schools he waited until the original language passed the Assembly. Then in the Senate, he did a “gut and amend” and put into the bill the proposal sponsored by the L.A. Mayor.
That bill has now been amended many, many times in the Senate. But it cannot be amended in the Assembly and was never heard in any Assembly committee until today, Thursday. The bill was heard in the Education committee, but no amendments could be taken. By deciding to put the bill’s contents in an Assembly bill after it left the Assembly, the Speaker guarantees that he only has to take amendments in the Senate and can better control the bill. It got out of the Assembly Education committee and moved directly to the Assembly floor.
At about 5 p.m. the bill was brought up for a vote on the Assembly floor. Our rules require a waiting period before we vote on items that come out of committee. But the Speaker asked for a vote to take it up today. Procedural votes are almost always along party lines. If our floor leader asks for an “aye” vote on a procedure, we all vote for the procedural motion, even if we are not in favor of the bill.
The vote was taken, and it is “on call.” That means it did not get the necessary 41 votes, but the proponents have until the meeting closes to talk to members and try to get them to vote for their bill. Right now the bill has 30 votes and needs 11 more. There were 21 “no” votes, and 28 people decided not to vote either way.
Here is where the Speaker”s power is critical. This bill has been “Speaker-ized.” That is a term that means that the Speaker will negotiate with those who have not yet voted for the bill. The negotiation can be promises or it can be penalties. There were 13 Democrats who have not voted on the bill. Now the problem for the Speaker is that 8 of the 13 are not returning to the Assembly next year. So penalties regarding budgets, offices, and committee assignments are not helpful in giving the Speaker any leverage. But five of the “not voting” Democrats are returning next year. That probably means that the Speaker will get some of them to vote for the bill. The Speaker will also speak to Democrats that voted “no”, but only one of them is a returning member. And there were no Republican “aye” votes on the bill, so we can expect at least a few of them will be called into the Speaker’s office one at a time, and the carrot and the stick will be there too.
And, if the bill fails to pass tonight, it can be brought up again on Reconsideration. In fact it can also be brought up on Thursday as well. So, when a bill is “Speaker-ized” , it almost always gets passed, sooner or later.
This is not good or evil per se. It is in fact how some of the best legislation gets passed. The legislature would never be able to do landmark environmental legislation, or critical consumer protection laws without bills being Speaker-ized. The question is always one of point of view. When reactionaries are in power, as they are in Washington D.C., we can see what this same power can do to harm the nation. The danger is always the same. One must always worry about the immense power of corporate America on our leadership and how its money influences such decisions.
Some say this is a terrible way to run things. It does sometimes result in people voting a different way than they actually believe. But there is a check on the Speaker’s power. If the Speaker uses his power to Speaker-ize a bill too often, a vote of the majority of the Democrats could remove him as Speaker. So, it is a way for the Speaker to all but guarantee success of a certain bill. But it must be made clear that Assembly members can say “no”, and they do. At lease three returning members are committed to opposing this bill one way or another, or so they say. We shall see.
So, now at 7:30 p.m. the “call” was lifted. From 30 votes, in 10 seconds, the vote went to 42 votes, and the bill passed. Three Democrats who voted “no” went to “aye” and nine Democrats who abstained from voting previously, went to “aye.” In the final analysis, two returning members voted “no”, as did one new Senator-elect, and two members leaving the Assembly, abstained. Now, several Republicans will add on in private, and the vote will look very good. The Governor will sign it tonight, and there will be a celebration at a Charter school in Los Angeles tomorrow. The celebration invitations went out from the Mayor’s office at about 5 p.m. tonight, BEFORE the bill went up for its first vote. Now, that’s power.
Thanks again, Jackie, for describing how power and control can influence legislation so significantly.
It is clear that where there is a will, there is a way—-even in politics!
Jackie has promised us one more blog, at least, “From the Floor”.