Read the Bill—or how I got through 700 bills in 7 days

There is little doubt that watching legislation work its way through the process is much like watching sausage being made. The bottom line is: You don’t want to watch. Although theoretically it is interesting, informative and exciting to see the democratic process of law-making take form, in reality there is so much push-and-pull, give-and-take and last minute backroom dealing that it’s impossible to follow. It’s often impossible to understand.
So when the Speaker of the Assembly asks his members to “read the bill” when debating the frenetically altered and re-altered health care reform measure, AB8, he’s asking for a logical response to an impossible situation. How can one read a bill that comes to your desk literally “hot off the press”, so hot that you can warm your hands on the paper? How can you understand what’s there when it deals with a convoluted system in a convoluted way—with no opportunity to vet the latest in a series of compromises, re-writes and reformulated policy?
Granted, the efforts are the result of hard-fought and truly late-night negotiations, but there has been little time to analyze the possible impacts and “unintended consequences” of legislating at the 11th hour, with dozens of special interest groups hovering over the negotiations and dozens of people trying to craft language that fits the proverbial square peg into a round hole. That’s exactly what the end-of-session looks like on a good day. But here we’ve got what is billed as a major overhaul of the healthcare system in California, a measure that will lead the nation in healthcare reform. Really? Has anyone read the entire bill in its final form? Highly unlikely.

Having been there at the end of each of six legislative years, my bet’s on the fact that even the authors of AB 8 haven’t read it in its final form. How many pages is it? How many hours have people been up without sufficient sleep so they can’t even think straight? How do the final amendments affect earlier amendments? Does this create a seamless system or one with glitches, omissions, administrative nightmares, unexpected costs? Is it like some of the old American cities that were built piecemeal, like my hometown of Boston where the old joke goes,”You want to go three blocks down the street?….Well, you can’t get there from here.”
Much credit must be given to those dozens of staffers, stakeholders and legislators who have worked hard to put together this compromise mishmash of who pays for what, who’s covered by whom and when and how. This is a compromise bill for a system that needs an overhaul that takes the real villain out of the process entirely–the health insurance industry. But the Governor won’t hear of it–after all, the insurance industry is among his biggest supporters-and they give lots of money to both sides as well. And we have a governor who has vetoed the best chance at real reform and real coverage of all Californians when he vetoed Senator Sheila Kuehl’s SB840 last year. Her bill is the true reform, providing universal health coverage-similar to the Medicare system that has worked so well in this country for decades. But no matter, AB8 deals with the reality that we have a Republican governor who will hear nothing of removing profit from our health care delivery system. So AB8 is the compromise effort.
But with the clock ticking down, nerves fraying and concentration fading with exhaustion, the legislature is whirling through hundreds of bills, many of which have been totally “gutted” and rewritten with entirely new issues and language. This is an ugly time of year to watch the legislative process in action. And we’ve been very lucky over the years that so few mistakes have been made as a result. Of course, when they have, the mistakes can be enormous–remember the energy deregulation plan that was approved at midnight on the last night of session many years ago? I suspect no one read the bill then. As a result of the rush-to-judgment mentality that year, billions of dollars were extorted from Californians by companies like Enron among many others, a governor was recalled and rate-payers today continue to pay for that debacle.
It is hard to watch the goings-on in these last, crazy days, let alone be part of it. The most important part of legislating, I was told when I first arrived in Sacramento as a new Assemblymember, was to “do no harm.” I hope that this message was passed along to all the membership and that at the end of this year, they will not have done any as well. In the meantime, we can only hold our collective breath and hope.