Over the course of this academic year, ASUC senators have created an emergency fund, signed contracts with two national news organizations and taken a stance on national issues — all through resolutions.
In this year’s senate class, however, more than half of the officials have yet to sponsor any legislation. Although resolutions could be one of the clearest ways to make a statement as a senator, in looking across several UC campuses it is clear that, to various members of student governments, passing bills may not be the most important part of the job.
As of April 21, this year’s ASUC Senate has reviewed 68 bills concerning a variety of topics.
The 2019-20 school year, however, has seen fewer bills than the previous two years. On April 21, 2019, the senate had seen 88. In 2018, senators had seen 101 bills on the same date.
Current and former members of the ASUC attributed the drop to several factors.
“There have been a slightly lower amount of resolutions we’ve seen this year,” said ASUC Chief Legal Officer Jedidiah Tsang. “My guess is that has to do with coronavirus and people not being able to meet with their legislative teams.”
Tsang went on to note that the lower number of bills could also be attributed to the variety of people in the senate; while some senators represent their communities by passing bills, there are other communities better represented in community-based work.
Former executive vice president, or EVP, Andy Theocharous, who resigned April 11, agreed with Tsang that external factors played a role in the lower number of bills considered. As EVP, Theocharous served as chair of the ASUC Senate this year and regularly interacted with senators.
“We see a sharp fall, I think, because this year we had an unprecedented amount of crises that happened,” Theocharous said. “Last year, we had a five-day shutdown; this year we dealt with COVID-19.”
Theocharous, who was a senator during the 2018-19 academic year, further attributed the decrease in bills to the higher number of senators who needed to navigate a “learning curve” in their term. He noted that senate classes with younger or more inexperienced members were “fine” but that these factors could be a challenge for productivity, adding that the senate had a larger number of junior and senior students during his term as a senator.
Theocharous was the only campus sophomore in his senate class; this year, the senate has three sophomore members.
Having only one year to accomplish goals also presents problems with productivity in general, according to Theocharous.
“A lot of projects that you want for your community might take more than a year,” Theocharous said. “This large turnover, I think, really disrupts our work. If you’re lucky, you’re on a three-year timeline.”
The purpose of resolutions
Resolutions can cover many different subjects, from internal change in the clarification of senate bylaws to the creation of relief funds.
Many ASUC bills result from members wanting to take a stance on an issue, according to Tsang.
“Particularly in the ASUC, we really like taking stances on something,” Tsang said. “They do take stances on pretty controversial issues, like there was the Kashmir resolution this year.”
The resolution, titled “Condemning the Government of India for the Revocation of Articles 370 and 35a,” ultimately called for the condemnation of the Indian government, advocacy for the safety of the Kashmiri people and exploration of any ties between campus and the Indian government.
This resolution caused controversy during an ASUC Senate meeting, with senators disagreeing about the necessity of passing the bill.
“This is purely symbolic,” said then-senator Milton Zerman during the meeting. “India doesn’t give a s— about what the ASUC says, and in my opinion, they shouldn’t.”
During the meeting, Zerman said he felt that bills should focus on issues that directly affect the campus.
External Affairs Vice President Varsha Sarveshwar said during the meeting, however, that signaling support to communities is “really important.”
“I would suggest that taking a stand — even if it is symbolic — means a lot to our communities and has an impact,” Sarveshwar said at the meeting. “Even if it’s not something we can make the biggest impact on, that kind of signaling is really important.”
The resolution did pass through the senate, with Zerman being the only senator to vote against it.
Other resolutions address more internal changes that involve the student government’s bureaucracy or its connected communities.
The ASUC passed several resolutions this school year to facilitate operations. For example, a resolution titled “Amending ASUC Elections Bylaws for Increased Clarity” passed through the senate in January.
In addition, the senate uses resolutions to facilitate contracts with outside organizations. This year, the ASUC signed contracts that gave all students, faculty and staff access to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Recently, several resolutions have focused on alleviating hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The ASUC recently created a COVID-19 financial relief fund, which is a part of the Annual Budgeting and Spaces Allocation process.
In terms of passing bills through the senate, Senator Romario, who does not use a last name, said he has personally not had much trouble passing resolutions.
“For myself, it’s been not that difficult because of the holistic energy I put into ensuring my resolutions are, well frankly, fire,” Romario said in an email. “This includes making sure to include Senators in even the early stages of my bills, seek out relevant co-sponsors, and ask for constructive criticism prior to the bill making it to the Senate floor.”
UC Berkeley compared to other UC campuses
As of April 21, the Associated Students of UC Irvine had reviewed 82 bills, and UC Davis’ student government had reviewed 83. By contrast, UC Merced’s student government website lists 27 passed bills. The Associated Students of UC Santa Barbara had reviewed 72 bills by the same date, according to Internal Vice President Alli Adam.
Compared to other UC student governments, UC Berkeley’s 68 reviewed resolutions fall in the middle range.
Other UC campuses have also seen drops in introduced bills this year; at the same time last year, for example, UC Irvine’s student government had reviewed 126 bills.
Nonetheless, Associated Students of UC Davis, or ASUCD, Senator Khalil Malik said he introduces or authors resolutions about once per week.
Adam, who serves as chair of her senate, said some senators at UC Santa Barbara also submit bills on a weekly basis.
“There definitely are the stars who make an effort to submit something every week or every other week, and there’s definitely people who are not as active,” Adam said.
This presents a contrast to UC Berkeley’s ASUC, in which members who have passed resolutions do not introduce them as frequently. Romario has introduced the most resolutions of his senate class with a total of seven sponsored resolutions, as of press time.
Despite the number of bills he has authored, Malik said the resolutions were only a “small” part of what it means to be a senator, noting the importance of working with communities and committees.
Adam added that at UC Santa Barbara, senators’ stipends are not based on the number of bills they pass — the same is true at UC Berkeley — emphasizing that the number of bills sponsored is not used to judge senators’ performances.
“Maybe you’re a really good liaison to your community, maybe you’re really active on social media,” Adam said. “I don’t use (resolutions) as a marker of evaluation for the senators by any means.”
Compared to those of other UC campuses, UC Berkeley’s ASUC Senate passes bills that address similar topics: internal operations, external partnerships and statements of support.
ASUCD Senator Samantha Boudaie said in an email that her senate has passed many internal bills, which she called “mundane,” in the past quarter that allowed the representatives to amend bylaws to reflect current association practices.
“A lot of our bills that we pass help facilitate the operation of the units that we have,” Malik said. “The main focus is on our operation as an association.”
Adam added that UC Santa Barbara’s student government has seen many large-scale activism bills introduced, such as the one that supported the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
In terms of cooperation, Malik said that, for the ASUCD, the majority of resolutions tend to pass near-unanimously. He noted that even when disagreements arise, the senate is able to have conversations to ensure productivity and effectiveness.
During ASUC Senate meetings, UC Berkeley’s senators frequently do not enter into discussion about bills. Some senators choose to use their time for announcements at the end of meetings to explain why they voted a certain way.
The role of a senator
In the ASUC, out of 20 members, only nine — including Zerman, who resigned earlier this semester — have been primary sponsors of legislation considered in the organization. Seven of those nine have been primary sponsors of passed resolutions.
Various members of the ASUC agreed that bills are not the position’s most important aspect.
Theocharous said he considered the “highest influence” of the senate on campus to be its access to administration, noting that senators can be involved in important conversations with officials.
“That’s the real power of the senate,” Theocharous said. “It’s not the bills — in my opinion, that’s one of the things that least shows their power.”
Many other members felt that communication with campus communities is one of the most impactful actions a senator can take while in office.
ASUC Senator Liam Will said in an email that he believes it is “key” to communicate with communities and students on campus about the purpose of bills to ensure impact.
“It’s not uncommon for me to talk to another student and be asked ‘Wait, what does the ASUC do anyway? I have no idea what they do,’ ” Will said in the email. “I don’t blame them at all, and in fact, there is a legitimate reason for this response. A bill, an event, or any initiative can’t create an impact if the students we serve don’t know about them in the first place.”