With apologies to Mark Twain and his definition of golf as “a good walk spoiled,” last Thursday, Assembly Republicans took a highly routine walk off the floor of the Legislature, only to have it spoiled by the heavy hand of the ruling party. Several newspaper articles have offered explanations for this; all of them that I have seen got it wrong. Here’s what happened.
By way of background, keep in mind that both parties have left the floor before during debate. It’s called a caucus and, typically, the parties have afforded each other the privilege of caucusing whenever they want. In fact, caucus requests, in the memory of those currently serving in the Legislature, have always been granted unanimously. But not last Thursday. The Speaker of the Assembly himself, in a highly unusual move, took the gavel and objected to a routine request by Republicans to caucus.
Unanimous consent denied, GOP leader, Connie Conway, then made a motion under the Assembly’s rules to recess for a caucus. Those rules provide that a caucus can be called on a simple 41 vote majority. Now, Republicans have only 27 votes in the Assembly, and thus needed 14 of our Democratic colleagues to support our never before doubted ability to meet among ourselves and briefly discuss matters. Yet, with the Speaker still wielding the gavel, the Republicans were further denied collegial assent to our request as he instructed his Democrats on the floor to vote no, and every one of them bowed to his demand.
So we walked off the floor and took our caucus anyway, much to the shock and evident consternation of the heavy handed ruling party. (Indeed, virtually every Republican later reported that a number of Democrats came up to us to apologize. But party discipline across the aisle being what it is….)
What we were meeting about, and why we actually wanted the caucus, is hardly important. For what it’s worth, the papers got it wrong suggesting that the GOP was in disarray over the bill that was next up for debate. In fact, we had discussed before session began taking a routine mid-morning caucus to take stock of proceedings as the Assembly moved numerous bills in the rush to meet our “house of origin” deadline. True, the caucus was called just as the Democrats pulled a slick procedural move (which we couldn’t stop – did I mention there are only 27 of us?), but that just seemed as good a time as any to our leadership and was really not related to the bill then up for consideration. The Democratic leadership just blew our request for a caucus out of proportion for inexplicable reasons. Maybe just to “show” us they could, as if the lopsided 52-27 margin isn’t proof enough. Of course, in their cavalier rush to mistreat the minority party, they also showed an unseemly disrespect for the institution.
Finally, a word about our return to the floor. When we had completed the purpose of our caucus – and admittedly discussed the unprecedented treatment we had received – we returned to the floor and carried on with our constituents’ business. We did not try to exact any “revenge” by slowing the proceedings or speaking unnecessarily on every bill; we pulled no delaying procedural moves; we all voted our consciences on the matters the Democrats had blithely brought up during our absence (yes, they continued to “debate” among themselves, as one-sided a love-fest as can be imagined). Our respect for the institution required precisely this responsible leadership and conduct.
At this point, no one knows what will be the fallout, if any, of this remarkable disregard for the history, traditions, and collegiality of the Assembly. It is hard to see what the Democratic leadership gained from its bizarre behavior. Since so many rank and file Democrats did privately express their regrets, perhaps there will be no repeat of the ugly episode. But it has had the effect of reinforcing the Republicans in our belief that leadership on the other side of the aisle ultimately is not interested in working with us to solve California’s problems. We have seen numerous agreements made last year and in years past between Democrats and Republican leaders, mostly on budget issues, of course, that have not been honored by the Democrats. When they spoiled our good walk last week, they reminded every GOP member of the Legislature of that unfortunate history.