Cultivating lawmaker friendships can lead to more compromise across the aisle

150 150 Bill Bagley

Former California Assemblyman Bill Bagley (R-AD07 Marin/Sonoma, 1960-1974) – known as a moderate – has watched with the rest of Californians as interactions between state lawmakers have become more hyper-partisan and gridlocked. The top-two primary and redistricting should help ease the gridlock and hyper-partisanship. But, Bagley also hopes to see a more congenial atmosphere developed through simple social interaction and remembers the days when lawmakers from all political stripes could call each other friend.

The Legislature has lost its ability to lead and thus work together and compromise. In fact, members of the Assembly have stated that they just don’t know each other. They gather only at partisan fundraisers and events.  Bi-partisan and bi-cameral lunches and dinners, open house lunches, and other events (put together by groups and lobbyists) were all eliminated when Prop 9 passed in 1974, limiting gifts to $10. Our colleague Jack Knox (D-Richmond 1960-1980) summarized:  “Within a few months of my arrival, I had shared a meal or a drink with everybody in both houses.”  We had no partisan seating – no “aisles” – until 1979.

Then in 1990 – the nail in the collegial coffin – term limits.  Now after four years, two-thirds the legislature is gone, but it takes about four years to understand the workings of the Capitol. Instead, freshman members are chosen as Assembly speakers, hardly knowing anyone in the Capitol except his or her major interest groups.

There are changes finally taking place:  less rigid reapportionment and less ideologue-driven primaries, now open to all voters.  After a few election cycles many republican and independent voters in heavily democratic districts (and vise versa) will vote for the more moderate democrat in the new top-two open primary.  Further, term limits may be extended but members still will not have established a needed working social culture of civility, trust and compromise.

No amount of superficial rule changes can alone inculcate a bi-partisan culture of trust.  Only close, knowing, respectful friendships can do this. As now Governor Jerry Brown said to me – “Bring back collegial events.”  That is a simple solution – here is how to do it.

Prop 9 requires a 2/3 vote to amend the gift limit, but it only takes a $2 million deductible non-partisan grant to produce $100,000 per year at a 5% return to sponsor ongoing social events.  The Legislative Auditor could be the monitor and a totally independent office could arrange small or sometimes larger bi-partisan lunches, dinners, other gatherings for members of both Houses, with constitutional officers, department heads, local and national government figures, and just with each other.

The secret to legislative accomplishment in earlier years was relationships developed by ongoing friendship and mutual trust.  We worked together because we played together.  Lobbyists arranged these events then, but the opportunities can be created now without lobbyist influence.  And, it pays off. In 1969, California’s was named the Number One Legislature in the nation by a Ford Foundation group.  Caucuses rarely met to take hardline positions, and there were no caucus sheets telling Members how to vote.  Partisan wrangling certainly took place, but trust trumped gridlock.

Bill Bagley is a former Republican California Assemblyman from the North Bay Area.


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