Half Savvy in Sacramento

In her preview of the contest for the open state Senate seat in Sacramento, Laurel Rosenhall of the Sacramento Bee demonstrates the peril, to reporter and readers alike, of being half savvy.

You know that cute little girl in the political ads for Assemblyman Richard Pan, who’s running against Assemblyman Roger Dickinson? You know, the one who smiles as Pan, in his white doctor’s coat, examines her? Her name isn’t Emily, Rosenhall tells us. No, her name is actually Seneca. And worse yet, “Her mom is a lobbyist and her dad is a political consultant. And the man depicted as her doctor is an assemblyman who spends more time in the Capitol than the exam room.”

Here, on full display, is what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “the cult of savvy” in political reporting. The reporter’s pose is that of the hard-headed and unsentimental observer who sees behind the curtain of the political game to the place where voters, those poor deluded saps, are manipulated. She knows what we don’t know, and asks her readers, as another journalism professor Todd Gitlin once described this brand of reporting, to become "cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement." We are the objects of the game, where things aren’t what they seem to us. Pan, she tells us, wants the voters to see him as a beloved doctor, not just another politician. And the savvy reporter is not going to let him get away with it.

But when the reader gets beyond the gotcha lead paragraphs of Rosenhall’s article, her story dissolves. It turns out that Richard Pan is indeed a doctor, who has continued to practice part-time during his four years in the California Assembly. And it turns out that the little girl was, in fact, one of his patients. Before Pan was ever a candidate for office, the child’s mother, then chief lobbyist for the California Medical Association and now a partner in her own firm, picked Pan to be her new baby’s pediatrician. So the reader learns that Pan is not only really a doctor but, if you assume that the chief lobbyist for the California Medical Association is better positioned to know something about medical quality than the average consumer, probably a pretty good one too.

In other words, a story that asks the readers to watch themselves being manipulated by big money donors ends up validating and amplifying the very message the donors are so expensively sending: good and caring doctor, healthy and happy patient, trusting mother. There were, I suspect, high-fives all around at the Pan headquarters the day the story appeared. A thousand words in the Bee repeating your message: Priceless.

But what about Pan’s using “a campaign tactic that so obviously demonstrates his relationship with a lobbyist,” Rosenhall asks. It’s a strange question in general. All members of the Legislature have relationships with lobbyists; it’s the nature of the job. And it’s an even stranger question in this contest in particular, given Pan’s opponent. Pan may have put the daughter of a lobbyist in his campaign ad, but the savvy Rosenhall has neglected to tell her readers that his opponent Roger Dickinson climbs into bed with a lobbyist every night: his wife, Marjorie Dickinson, runs the government and community relations shop at UC Davis.

A reporter more interested in substance than savvy might have made something useful out of this story. Pan is counting on the public’s high regard of doctors as professionals to give him a halo effect. But a reporter versed in health policy might help voters understand that being a doctor in politics raises issues the electorate should care about.

Health care in the United States is far more expensive than anywhere else in the world. One big reason is that doctors here have used their political power to drive up their incomes and restrict competition. A reporter more interested in policy might have told us something about how Pan looks at and votes on issues — reimbursement rates, scope of practice by competing medical providers, malpractice, breadth of provider networks for health plans under Covered California, the state’s insurance exchange — where the interests of patients and businesses clash with those of doctors.

In fact, Rosenhall’s story, which looks to be the centerpiece of the Bee’s coverage of the Sacramento state Senate race, gives readers nothing apart from political savviness and the identity of campaign donors with which to make an informed judgment between the two major candidates. What are their voting records and how do they differ? How effective are they as lawmakers? What are their reputations for intelligence, policy knowledge, and honesty?

As a voter who lives in the district and has make a choice in this contest, I need to answer those questions. As a subscriber, that’s what I thought I was paying Rosenhall and my newspaper to give me. Instead I get Capitol gossip wrapped up as savviness.

King Chiang, Dethroned

Because I suspect almost no one else will, let me congratulate three associate justices of California's Third District Court of Appeal—M. Kathleen Butz, Cole Blease, William J. Murray, Jr.—for knowing an unconstitutional abuse of executive power when they see it. On January 24 they affirmed an earlier trial court decision declaring that state Controller John Chiang has no authority to dock the Legislature's pay for failing to pass a budget he judges to be unbalanced, as he did in 2011.

"Where the Legislature is the entity acting indisputably within its fundamental constitutional jurisdiction to enact what it designates as a balanced budget, the Controller does not have audit authority to determine whether the budget bill is in fact balanced..." Justice Butz wrote for the court. "As a result, the Controller is not a party to the enactment of the budget bill."

The decision should come as no surprise. Anyone who bothered to look at the state constitution could see it did not give Chiang the monarchal authority he asserted in 2011 (a category that excludes, alas, most of the state's pundits, who cheered the controller's abuse of power).

The appeals court ruling echoes the analysis I offered at the time: that Proposition 25, which provides for docking legislators' pay if they fail to pass a timely budget, does not give the controller any power to second-guess whether a passed budget is balanced; that the constitution grants the Legislature sole authority for determining projected budget revenues; that the governor's line-item veto power on spending is the executive check on legislative fiscal irresponsibility.

By clarifying the law today, the court has spared California much future anguish. Had it affirmed Chiang's claim of power, it would have added more opportunity for political mischief and grandstanding by future controllers to an already absurd system of budgeting. In California, it counts as a victory for good government whenever a court knocks down an attempt to make things worse.

California's Lawless Tinpot Demagogues

If you want a poster child for everything that’s wrong with government in the Golden State, take a look at the California Citizens Compensation Commission, a body that manages to combine lawlessness and unaccountability in equal measures.

Created by Proposition 112, a constitutional amendment passed by the legislature and approved by voters in 1990, the commission has a single task: to set salaries and benefits for state legislators and constitutional officers.

There is, of course, no more touchy political question than how much politicians should get paid for doing the public’s work. It’s an issue perfect for demagoguery.

So the idea behind Prop 112, as in so much else of what passes for “reform” in California, was to take the politics out of politics. California would shift the duty of setting politicians’ pay away from legislators and the governor and lodge it in an independent commission charged with following neutral, technocratic rules. In a ballot argument signed by officials of reformy groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, voters were told, “Proposition 112 will create a salary commission that specifically cuts out bureaucrats and elected officers and includes average Californians….[T]heir decision will be made in public by people like you.” [Emphasis in original.]

Except the seven people on the commission are in no way like the rest of us. Appointed by the governor to six-year terms, they are not subject to confirmation, and they are accountable to no one. They can do what they like and nobody else has a say.

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