State Senate and Assembly Phantom Committees Cost Us Millions, Breed Cynicism

Recently column I took aim at what I consider to be the most glaring red herring out there today -- the claim by several parties that frivol...

Recently column I took aim at what I consider to be the most glaring red herring out there today -- the claim by several parties that frivolous medical malpractice suits are the primary cause of escalating health care costs.

I argued that while this component makes up only 2 percent of the total annual health care cost, its significance is overstated. In essence, I urged readers not to be fooled by this red herring.

One of my associates adroitly noted that while statistically small, the cost of medical malpractice is still in the billions of dollars when measured against the $1.7 trillion we spend annually on health care. Touché!

While I still stand by the red herring warning on medical malpractice suits, my compatriot’s point is well taken -- every bit matters as we work toward a health care cost containment solution.

With this a frame of reference, I recently read a story in the October 9, 2009 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle detailing how members of our state senate regularly featherbed their staff at the expense of taxpayers. While the amount of money involved as part of state’s budget is statistically insignificant, it is perfectly legal.

Nonetheless, it is a telling tale of how the system works. Now for how the scheme is run.

State senate and assembly rules allow for the creation of select committees to help lawmakers explore topics in-depth. Currently, the assembly and senate have 77 such select committees, which study topics ranging from the economy to obesity.

According to the story, 32 of these committees meet regularly and employ experts in their respective fields. However, it was found that 19 of these -- phantom committees if you will -- have not held meetings this year. And some have not met since 2007 even though they continue to employ full-time personnel.

So just what are these select committee experts doing?

According the story, these select committee staffers often serve in capacities not in their formal job description. In other words, they are working for assembly members and senators doing jobs other than what they are supposedly being paid for.

None of the senators interviewed for the story denied the practice and justified the shell game as a necessary tool to provide staff for constituents’ services. Some, like Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, are unrepentant about the practice.

Leno has two committees with four paid staff that have yet to meet this year.

“I just walked into the house. I didn’t create the rules,” Leno was quoted in the story.

This whole scheme is wrong on so many levels.

To start with, why all the masquerading? If staff members are truly needed to meet constituent service, why form all these phantom committees?

The need to provide constituents’ services is a justifiable part of lawmakers’ jobs. How about you guys try justifying these additional staffers based on merits instead of using smoke and mirrors?

What makes this practice truly insidious is that formation of these phantom committees does nothing but make us taxpayers doubt the true motivations of senators and assembly members. Are they really interested in renewable energy, or are they just looking to play the system to have a larger staff for their own political gain?

Furthermore, these types of maneuvers, while apparently within the letter of the law, are the perfect Petri dish for breeding the cynicism that hobbles our ability to have true political discourse. No wonder our state lawmakers are perennially unpopular with voters.

Leno’s response is particularly galling, as he is rationalizing the status quo. If nothing else, the last few state budget debacles should have shown our lawmakers that acceptance of the status quo is not a workable solution. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

And, lest we forget, there is taxpayer money involved here. True, the amount is insignificant in the scheme of the total budget, but as my compatriot pointed out, it does add up. Or, as the late Sen. Everett Dirksen is said to have uttered, a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

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Unknown said...

Today's medical professional liability system is too adversarial and too expensive. There are alternatives. More at

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