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June 12, 2013
Guest Opinion: FBI raid reveals need for -- and hurdles to -- reform

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(June 12 -- By Jessica A. Levinson, Special to The Bee)

The results of the FBI's investigation into California state Sen. Ron Calderon are, from one perspective, inconsequential. His behavior, much of which is likely legal, is bad enough. Calderon's story exemplifies many of the systemic problems created by the influence of money over the political process.

The story does not begin with the FBI's rare decision to search Calderon's offices. Nor will the story end with a possible indictment, trial, or even prison sentence. The story begins much earlier, and has no clear end in sight.

Calderon, who represents the city of Montebello, in Los Angeles County, is a politician who used the benefits of public office to his advantage. His tale is hardly unique. He simply may have obtained more benefits, and been more flagrant about using those benefits, than others.

Calderon is known for, among other things, receiving the most money in gifts from lobbyists than any other lawmaker during the last dozen years, being investigated for purportedly failing to properly report gifts and using campaign funds for personal purposes, and raising money for a legal defense fund after his legal dispute was settled.

Calderon also gained attention for inviting lobbyists to a high-priced banking and finance sector fundraiser right after being named the Assembly's Banking and Finance Committee chairman, allowing interest groups to foot the bill for out-of-state travel, and purportedly working with his brother - a former state representative who became a $10,000-per-month consultant for the Central Basin Municipal Water District - to support legislation beneficial to the district.

This type of fundraising, for a variety of candidate-controlled committees, and from lobbyists, is distasteful but entirely normal. Large gifts from lobbyists and others who likely want something from representatives is also hardly a rarity.

So which government reform can we turn to for help in reducing the pervasive influence of money over politicians? Well, perhaps none in place right now.

Money influences not only candidate elections and the legislative process, but also ballot initiative campaigns. The ballot initiative process was meant to reduce the influence of special interests over the Legislature by allowing the people to directly enact legislation. However, it is currently the handmaiden of special interests who can simply bypass the Legislature and circulate their own petitions. The initiative process, now hijacked by special interests, fails to serve its purpose of reducing the influence of money over politics.

Incidentally, a law passed via the initiative process, term limits, has also played a role in our sad tale. This law limits the amount of time that public officials can serve in office. This again is another attempt to "fix" what ails politics in California. While many of us may look to the term-limit law and be thankful that it means Calderon will soon be ousted from the state Senate, this restriction has done more harm than good.

Politicians with little experience or expertise are heavily, perhaps unduly, reliant on lobbyists who are typically nothing if not experienced.

Lobbyists have a great deal of institutional knowledge, but also by definition, an agenda. Politicians must have the time and space to obtain their own knowledge when deciding how best to represent their constituents.

We should foster experience and expertise among those representing us, not punish it.

Politicians, it is important to remember, do not have lifetime appointments. They must ask us, those who they represent, if they can keep their job each election cycle. If the problem is that we feel elections do not put the best public officials in office, then we should fix elections, not simply toss out all politicians because they have served a certain number of years in office. Let us not use a saw for that which requires a scalpel.

And as for Calderon, well, he is raising money for his next run for office, either for state controller or state Assembly. The endless merry-go-round of politicians hopping in and out of public office continues unabated after the imposition of term limits.

I do not endeavor here to solve all that ails California. Two of my top proposals, significantly paring back on the ballot initiative process and doing away with term limits, are unpalatable to most voters and will likely never be enacted. And thanks in large part to decades of muddled Supreme Court decisions, the influence of money over political campaigns is here to stay in the short term. The best avenue for hope in that area is a system of robust disclosure.

Calderon is perhaps the latest poster child for politicians behaving badly, but unless there are significant, structural reforms made to our electoral and legislative processes, he will certainly not be the last.

Jessica A. Levinson is an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, specializing in election law and governance issues. She blogs at http://polawtics.lls.edu.

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