OPEN GOVERNMENT — Among the ideas in circulation for a possible reform agenda at a state constitutional convention, the one-house legislature has several attractions but one great danger, says a former Republican Assembly leader: the faster legislative process moves, the less open and checkable it becomes.
In the words of Bob Naylor, writing in the Los Angeles Times,
deliberations on legislation in each house would result in a major loss
of transparency. Merging the two chambers would seriously undermine the
public's and media's efforts to blow the whistle on bad bills.
Currently, every bill gets a policy committee hearing in each house.
The first hearing is often perfunctory, as committee members are
inclined to give bill authors (their colleagues in the same house) the
benefit of the doubt and move legislation along as "works in progress."
To make matters worse, the committees, especially in the Assembly, are
so lopsided in partisan makeup that bills rarely get seriously debated.
Because the passage of a bill out of committee is virtually certain in
many cases, testimony often consists of a few witnesses on each side
with little time to talk; many who show up to speak in support of or
against legislation are prevented from doing anything other than
identifying themselves and their organizations. Amendments can be
adopted in concept before being written down, with little staff vetting.
In a one-house Legislature, those hearings would be the only
deliberative process before the floor "debate" a couple of days later
and the vote to send the legislation to the governor. In the two-house
system, a bill has to go through the whole process again in the next
house. New staff eyes (both Republican and Democratic) have to review
it, and those who would be adversely affected by the bill get a chance
to try to fine tune it or mount serious opposition.
Then there's the widely decried "gut and amend" strategy, in which at
the end of the legislative session, a bill on one subject is
effectively rewritten to address an entirely different matter. A
perfunctory hearing is called "off the floor" with virtually no notice
and the bill is rushed along for a vote by the entire chamber.
Bad as this is, at least a bad bill has to be voted on in two houses
after further review, increasing the chances that the media or interest
groups will blow the whistle. In a unicameral Legislature, only half
that level of scrutiny would take place.