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How Legislation Gets Passed — A Case History: The California Coastal Act Of 1976.

August 2, 2019

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Recently, rummaging through some documents in long-ignored files that I had accumulated on my computer over the years, I came across a draft post describing a critical and amusing point in the process during the passage through the legislature of California’s Coastal Program forty years ago. In an effort to emphasize it as a humorous but accurate example of the legislative process in general, the draft does not identify the legislation nor the parties by name.

 

How Legislation Gets Passed — A Case History.

 

For three days we sat in the Senator’s office mostly in silence. A little over four years before, I began the drafting, redrafting and editing, cajoling supporters and threatening the opposition where I could not persuade them to compromise on what eventually became what many were calling the most significant legislation of the decade. It was the Senator’s job to persuade and maneuver the bill that now bore his name through the legislature. About a week before, we had received commitments from seventeen of the twenty-one senators needed to pass the bill and send it on to the Governor to be signed into law. Since then, not a single additional legislator agreed to support the bill. Only three days remained before the session ended. If we did not have the votes before then, the bill would die.

Now and then, the Senator would return to the floor for required votes on other pending legislation or to try to find someone willing to consider voting for the bill. I would sometimes call around to one or another of the legislation’s supporters urging them to keep up the pressure on the uncommitted legislators and lying to them about our chances for success.

Mostly, however, the Senator and I just sat in his office in silence and waited and hoped.

It was close to noon that day when the phone rang. The Senator picked it up and after a series of grunts, yeses, a few okays and one right away, he hung up the phone, turned to me with a big smile on his face, and said, “That was the Governor’s Chief of Staff. The Governor has decided to come out in support of the bill.”

A little background may be helpful here. The bill itself was very Party-oriented, one Party generally supported it while the other did not. Nothing unusual there. The Party that supported the legislation was in power and the Governor was a member of that Party as was the Senator. However, one of the Party’s staunchest interest groups and some of the Party’s largest campaign contributors strongly opposed it and for all extent and purposes controlled the last remaining votes needed to pass the bill.

Early on in the session, the Senator and I met with the Governor to solicit his endorsement because during his election campaign he had expressed strong support for legislation like this. In response to our request, he said, “You have no bill. When you are down to needing one vote to pass the legislation come back to me and I will think about it then.” I could not help but recall Franklin Roosevelt’s response to his staff when they urged him to support the creation of Social Security. “Make me,” he told them.

The Senator instructed me to meet with the Governor and his Chief of Staff to try to come up with a strategy that would gain the required votes. He had to stay close to the Senate chambers in order to respond to vote calls and to present other bills he was carrying.

So, I traveled through the Capitol and on to the large doors that guarded the entrance to the Governor’s suite of offices. I entered and announced myself to the receptionist and then waited for someone to escort me to the Governor’s private office. To my surprise, instead of a secretary or an intern showing up to accompany me, it was the Governor’s Chief of Staff himself. He beckoned me to follow him. He then turned and without a word strode off down the long hallway that extended from the reception area to the Governor’s inner sanctum.

The Chief of Staff, an austere character, was as grey and colorless as his name. He was reputed to eat and breathe politics, at least that half of it that consisted of manipulation and strategy. The other half that entailed charisma and bonhomie he hadn’t a clue.

We walked down that long hallway to the room furthest from the reception area. We entered.

The Governor was seated behind the large dark wood desk one expects in the offices of the big kahunas of large powerful organizations. I was impressed that he made no pretense to be working on anything. Instead, his sharp eyes followed me as I walked across the room and went to sit on one of the uncomfortable under-upholstered armchairs that faced his desk. The Chief of Staff rounded the desk and took up a position slightly behind the Governors left shoulder. He remained standing.

The Governor was an unprepossessing man, balding slightly, somewhat hawk-faced, round shoulders, rather smallish in stature and bulk. He radiated no charisma other than that imparted by the room, the desk and his position as Governor of the State. Perhaps that was why, in my opinion, he ranked as a better Governor than the any of the six governors of the State I had known and worked for. Still, had he appeared before me for a management position in an organization that I might have run, I would not have chosen him. He seemed to lack that hubris and aggressive arrogance that we all too often mistake for ability in men. On the other hand, he possessed his own quirky brand of arrogance, often greeting proposals from his own staff with responses that bordered on disdain. Sometimes, he would propose alternatives that even his admirers would call bizarre. Surprisingly, however, many of those alternatives seemed to work out.

“How many votes do you got?”, he said in that gravelly and slightly unpleasant voice of his. I had not fully sat down yet. I stopped my descent and answered, “We’re three short.” That was a lie. We were four short but what the hell difference did it make. Three sounded better than four.

“Well, who’s holding out?” he barked.

I named seven legislators from the Governors Party.

The Governor turned to the Chief of Staff and asked, “Of that group, who do you think is dumb enough that I could get him to switch and maybe get the ball rolling?”


The Chief of Staff pointed out that all the recalcitrant Senators were very committed to the interest groups opposing the bill but suggested one Senator that he felt would have the qualifications the Governor desired. I readily agreed.

While, in my experience, most legislators seem unqualified for most things, especially formulating public policy and the legislation necessary to carry it out, they are, as whole experts, in getting elected. The Senator in question was an expert in busses. He owned a two-bus company that had managed to acquire a contract to provide bus service to a rural elementary school in his district. He entered his first political race for the State Senate as a very dark horse candidate and then surprised everyone by, in conjunction with the other bus owners in the district, appearing at the polls with many busloads of voters mostly from his ethnic group and who had rarely, if ever, voted before.

Following his stunning upset victory, he settled into the life of an elected representative by rarely speaking at legislative hearings and voting reliably for the interests of those who now financed his reelection campaigns in sufficient amounts for him to mostly forgo the busses at election time.

The Governor turned to the Chief of Staff and directed him to call the Senator and set up a meeting with him. He also told him to assemble all the parties in interest, the lobbyists involved and the members of the agency affected by the legislation. I then left the office and returned to my own.

A few hours later, I received a call from the Chief of Staff directing me to attend another meeting with the governor. This time he sent me to a room just off the temporary legislative chambers. The legislative chambers had been moved to temporary quarters because the Capitol building was undergoing restoration at the time.

I arrived at the designated room. It was a large space recently constructed for some unknown purpose and located near the temporary legislative chambers. I entered through a long ramp. The room was empty of furnishing except for a folding card table, two folding chairs and a lone telephone sitting on top of the table. About 20 or so people were milling about. I could see several representatives of the Party’s staunchest interest group standing together in a line looking like undertakers at a funeral. I was told that when the state police were ordered to round up the interested parties and bring them to the meeting, one of the leading members of this particular group escaped out the back door of his house and drove away to hide somewhere. I do not know how true that story was, but given the impact of the legislation on his interests, his absence was notable and curious. I was told, he believed his absence would prevent the Governor from pressuring him and that his colleagues would never agree to anything allowing the bill to pass without first securing his consent,

There were also a few lobbyists and representatives of other interests there. I spotted the director of the governmental agency most affected by the bill who was talking with the lobbyist that represented many of the groups supporting the bill. I caught their eyes and nodded to them, but before I could move over to join them, the Governor walked down the ramp and without speaking to anyone went directly to the card table and sat down on one of the folding chairs.

Almost immediately following the governor’s entrance, I noticed the Chief of Staff and the Senator in question also moving down the ramp. The Chief of Staff leaned toward the Senator and spoke to him in a low voice. I was close enough to the ramp to hear what he said. “Senator,” he whispered, “ we are only one vote short on the bill and you are it.” That, of course, was a lie, but lying, after all, is the stock in trade of politics.

The Senator, a short roly-poly man then entered the room and saw all those assembled there. He stopped. His eyes widened. He then spotted the lineup of the representative of the Party’s powerful supporting group, blanched slightly, and nodded to them. He then moved on to the table at which the Governor sat and plumped himself on the chair across from him. “Hello Governor,” he said in a low and somewhat wary voice.

Instead of greeting him in return, the Governor leaned in and asked, “Senator, what’s your problem with the bill?”

The Senator sat back in his seat. The slight murmur of whispering in the room ceased. Everyone seemed to lean in so as to catch every word of the Senator’s response.

“I have no problem with the bill,” the Senator replied. “But, I have received a letter from a constituent who does.” With that, he reached into his pocket and removed a folded piece of paper and waved it about.

I assumed that when he received the request for the meeting from the Governor’s office, the Senator had rushed back to his own office and rifled his files for some justification for his position other than fear of losing campaign contributions from some of the people gathered there in that room. The letter was what he plucked from the files.

“Well,” responded the Governor almost immediately, “let’s get him on the line and find out what’s his problem.” The Chief of Staff then picked up the phone to make the call.
The surprise and shock of this response caused almost everyone in the room (including the Senator) to look about wide-eyed and raise our eyebrows to signify bemusement whenever we caught someone else’s eye.

We could hear the ringing over the speakerphone. Then it was picked up. I do not remember the man’s name who answered so I will call him Mr. West. The phone call went something like this:

“Hello,” said Mr. West. He sounded a bit grumpy as though he had been interrupted while doing something important.

The Senator introduced himself and then said, “I am here with the Governor and we need to decide on the bill that you wrote to me about. We need to know the reason for your opposition before we can proceed with it”

“This is a joke, right,” Mr. West responded.

The Governor then jumped in. “This is the Governor, Mr. West. It is no joke. I am here with the Senator and a lot of people with interest in the legislation. Your letter of opposition is keeping us from passing the bill so we need to know what your problem with it is.”

I recall feeling that everyone in that room seemed to lean in a little more and stare hard at the phone as they waited for a response. After a moment or two of silence. Mr. West replied, “Well, I have a second home in the area affected by the legislation. It is in a high fire-hazard area. I am afraid I will be prohibited from clearing the brush from around the building.”

“Well, Mr. West,” the Governor replied, “we have here with us the head of the agency that will administer the bill and the committee consultant responsible for overseeing its drafting, let’s ask them.” With that, the Governor turned from the phone and stared at us.
The Executive Director and I briefly looked into each other’s eyes, then turned back to the Governor and said in unison, “No, it wouldn’t stop him from clearing the brush around his house to protect it from fire.”

Now, this was not strictly a lie, but the bill was almost one-hundred pages long and we could not possibly remember everything in it. Also, we all know that at times those in government who administer the laws become overly zealous and may misinterpret certain provisions. Nevertheless, under the circumstances, it was our best guess. At this stage, we could hardly be expected to sound equivocal.

The Governor then turned back to speaker-phone and said, “There you have it, Mr. West, from those who know. Do you have any other problems?”

“No,” West responded. “ That’s all I was concerned about. I support the goals of the bill.” Then after a moment’s hesitation, he added, “In the future, you don’t have to call, a letter will do.

Following the round of thank-yous, goodbyes, and the hanging up of the phone the Governor sat back in his chair stared at the Senator and asked, “Well Senator what’s your problem now?

The Senator did not answer immediately. Instead, he sat there for a moment and looked around the room as though he was searching for help. Then in response, I assume, to a signal from the undertakers, he turned back to the Governor and said, “Governor, I need some time to discuss this.”

“Take your time Senator. We’ll be right here waiting for your answer,” the Governor replied.

With that, the Senator got up out of his chair and along with the undertakers left the room. The rest of us remaining in the room broke up into small groups and the buzzing of our conversations replaced the quiet. The Governor whispered something to the Chief of staff then remained silently sitting at the table, unmoving. This struck me as a little unusual since I have always known him to be a bit of a fidgeter.

I resumed conversing with our little group. We avoided talking about what had just happened neither did we speculate on what may be being discussed by the Senator and his cronies a few feet away. Instead, we passed the time in nervous small talk, about families, the weather and the like — every now and then glancing at the doors by which the conferees had left.

I no longer recall how long we stood there waiting. It could have been as much as twenty minutes to a half-hour or perhaps even more. The doors finally opened, the conferees piled back into the room, the whispering ceased and the Senator announced, “Governor, we can support the bill only with the following five non-negotiable amendments.” The Senator handed a piece of paper to the Governor.

The Governor took the paper handed to him, glanced at it briefly, turned, gave it to me, and said, “Here, can you guys live with this.”

Along with the Executive Director and the Lobbyist for the supporters of the legislation, I examined the handwritten note. As far as I could see, it appeared as though neither the Senator nor the undertakers had read the legislation through because four of the five non-negotiable demands seemed either irrelevant or covered in other parts of the bill. The fifth, however, appeared more significant. While it did not call for any material changes in regulation policies, jurisdiction or authority, it did require a significant alteration in administration, one that would need logistical changes in the operations of the agency, and, of course, more staff. Nevertheless, it was livable and in my opinion, far more detrimental to the interest groups proposing it, then to the agency forced to administer it. After reading it through at least twice, the Executive Director and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, turned back to the Governor and said more or less in unison, “We can live with this.”

At this date, I do not recall if there was a muted cheer or just a collective exhale of breath. The Governor, however, was not finished. He turned to the chief spokesman of the undertakers and said, “You heard it. Now that we have reached agreement release the rest of your votes,” and handed him the telephone.

The chief spokesman dialed the floor of the Senate which was still in session and asked to speak to a specific Senator. The Senator eventually came online. The Chief Spokesman said, “We have an agreement here. You are free to vote for the bill. You can tell the others.” The Senator responded, “Thank God” and hung up the phone.

At that point, there seemed to be a release of the collective breath in the room. Handshakes and smiles broke out among almost everyone except the undertakers. The Governor did not partake in the spontaneous celebration, but following a brief word or two with the Senator and the Spokesman turned and, with the Chief of Staff in tow, strolled up the ramp and out of the room.

The Non-negotiable amendments were placed into what was referred to as a “trailer bill” and it also passed.

There you have it. After more than a decade, the efforts of thousands of people and the expenditure of millions of dollars, it all came down to a few people in a room, some lies, a bit of theater, lots of exaggeration, and a bagful of coincidence and luck. That’s often how laws are made — — like sausages, but not as sanitary.

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