By Chris Micheli and Rex Frazier
Influencing legislation is a complicated business. There is no high-tech computer model that can predict whether a bill introduced in the California Legislature will become a law and, if so, the form it will take. However, there are many, knowable influences that regularly shape state legislation in California. This article is an effort to summarize several of the key factors that are worthy of consideration when developing state legislative advocacy strategies in California.
When Capitol observers consider legislation, they generally start with three basic questions: What is current law (a legal question)? What should the law be (a policy/fiscal question)? What are the politics of the situation (a political question)? In addition, in order to influence legislators, it is important to delve deeper into how each legislator’s unique views and circumstances to determine how the legislator will assess those policy, fiscal and political implications of proposed legislation
The following list is certainly not comprehensive, but it gives the reader an idea of some of the influences impacting decisions by lawmakers at the State Capitol. Legislative decision–making generally comes down to deliberation, political bargaining and personal motivations of the individual legislators who are required to cast a vote on a bill. They include:
Political Party – One of the biggest influences, and most reliable predictors, of how a legislator will vote is the legislator’s political party affiliation. We are referring to the party caucus apparatus within the Legislature, as the actual Democratic and Republican Parties infrequently weigh-in on pending legislation. Legislators typically inquire first about the position of the party’s caucus and its vote recommendation and frequently have little first-hand knowledge about the pending measure.
It is generally a weighty decision for a legislator to depart from party orthodoxy (i.e., what is “expected”). The job of legislative advocate in alignment with a caucus’ position is to “hold” the legislator; a more difficult task is for the legislative advocate seeking a vote at odds with a legislator’s caucus position.
Legislative District – It is crucial for a legislator to take into consideration the needs and interests of his or her district and constituents. Is the legislator voting his or her district? On a controversial measure, he or she may also need to consider any potential “political costs” to the proposed legislation. The fundamental concern is how will the vote on this bill impact the legislator in his or her district? Legislators face difficult choices when the views of the district are at odds with the party caucus position.
Legislative Leadership – The leader of the legislative chamber may have the most influence of any legislator. Sometimes the leader’s support or opposition will carry the day with members of his or her caucus. At other times, a legislator may be persuaded by some other factor but the leader’s position will weigh heavily. Leadership styles vary over time, with some leaders demanding more caucus loyalty than others. A legislative advocate must be aware of this dynamic.
Interest Groups – The legislator may be friendly with one or more key interest groups. This can be based upon personal trust of a particular group’s advocates or it could be based on raw, political realities. So, naturally the legislator will want to know how that interest group views this proposal and one of the first questions a legislator will ask staff is “who supports and opposes this measure?” They will also want to know how important is the issue or bill to that interest group? In other words, is the bill a priority or a bill upon which they have simply taken a position but are not otherwise active.
Personal Philosophy – How the legislator will view a public policy issue may be dependent upon his or her personal beliefs. What is the individual’s political ideology? Does a governing philosophy direct how this legislator may vote on issues? Does religion play a role? Are there other factors, such as geographic or regional sensibilities, gender, or ethnicity? Has the legislator had any personal or professional experiences in life that influence their thinking about an issue?
Colleagues – How a legislator views another member of the chamber or political party may be a determining factor, such as whether that fellow legislator is a committee chair, or represents an area of the state, or has subject matter expertise. If a legislator knows little about a bill, they may seek out a colleague with more information. Also, a personal working relationship with a bill author is key and can often help facilitate compromise or preclude it in some instances.
Rules – The vote requirements and other procedural hurdles can impact how a legislator may vote on a bill. For example, there is a super-majority vote requirement for tax increase measures. Does the need for a large vote of both houses influence how a legislator may vote?
Governor – As the Governor can sign or veto any of the bills, he or she does have considerable influence over shaping legislation. Does the bill have any support or opposition from the state’s chief executive? Is the Governor of the same political party as the legislator? Has the Governor staked out a position in this policy area?
Public Opinion – the opinion of the public can influence legislators as well. Have the media or blogosphere written about this issue or bill? Is there public opinion polling on it? If so, what is the majority’s position? Have opinion-editorials been published in the local newspaper? If so, which position do they advocate?
As one can see, there are often numerous factors that influence how a legislator may or may not vote on a bill in the Legislature. Because there are so many possible factors that can influence legislators in any given instance, it is often difficult to determine which of those factors has the most impact.
Moreover, these factors can have more or less influence with different legislators at different times. Many of these factors come into play in different contexts or with different bills. In other words, one bill may be mostly influenced by a personal connection, while the vote on the next bill may be decided by its impact on the legislator’s district.
Chris Micheli is a Principal with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. Rex Frazier is the President of the Personal Insurance Federation. Both serve as Adjunct Professors at McGeorge School of Law in its Capital Lawyering Program.