California’s Dysfunctional Government Needs Big Fix

California used to have a government of which, believe it or not, its citizens could be proud. Say what you will about  Governor Ronald Reagan, but, working with Democratic leaders like Speaker Leo McCarthy and President Pro Tem James Mills, things got done. Working with Republican legislative leaders budgets got passed. Important legislation (abortion rights and welfare to name just two) was enacted. The educational system was (relatively) strong and infrastructure was expanded, not just maintained. Yes there were problems and conflicts and pitched political battles, but the people’s business got done.

Not so now. Facing an 18 month budget deficit of over $42 billion (and counting) leaders in Sacramento are stymied by partisanship and hamstrung by procedural rules. A budget deal may be close as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg are hard at work on a compromise. Their deal will bypass legislative Republicans who will no doubt sue the minute any compromise package is signed into law. In the meantime state services are being cut, infrastructure projects are being suspended, state workers furloughed, California’s bond ratings are falling nearly as fast as the public’s confidence in state government.

It’s not like lawmakers are trying to be inept. For example,  Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has tried to create a “post-partisan” environment where pragmatism prevails. He just seems unable to stop insulting legislators. While all sides claim to be willing to compromise, each side of the Great Triad of Gridlock (the Governor, Democratic and Republican legislators) have positions that are non-negotiable. It’s hard to find common ground when so many issues are unmentionable. One might admire the tenacity with which Republican legislators cling to their anti-tax principles, for instance, if they would only recognize that these are unusual times that require an open mind. 

If the only result of this embarrassmentwas a diminishment in the reputation of California politicians it would be interesting, but not so bad. Unfortunately, the inability to govern is hurting citizens already on the edge. The independent California Budget Project recently issued a report, Proposed Budget Cuts Come at a Time of Growing Need, outlining the fraying safety net as it’s being pulled by a faltering economy and substantial budget cuts.  The CBP is a liberal group, but that doesn’t diminish the validity of their analysis. While the first to feel the pain from governmental dysfunction are the poor, the impact doesn’t stop there. The middle class relies on state services, too.

Clearly, California’s government needs reform. A first step was taken this year with the passage of Proposition 11. By changing the way the state’s legislative districts are drawn there’s a chance a greater number of pragmatic lawmakers may find it possible to be elected. The more competitive these districts are, the more centrist (and, consequently, less purely ideological) the winners are likely to be. This doesn’t mean they won’t have strongly held beliefs. It’s just that they (hopefully) will be more willing to find common ground with their political opponents than do current legislators who apparently value ideological purity over results.

Proposition 11, however, should be just the start. Another approach to consider would be open primaries combined with run-off elections. Voters would be able to cast their ballot for a candidate in the primary regardless of their political affiliation. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the top two candidates face-off in the general election, even if they are of the same party. Again, the expected result would be lawmakers who can appeal to the broadest cross-section of their communities.

Would this approach weaken political parties? Yes, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.  Parties play an important role in American and state politics. Reducing their influence is not a decision to be taken lightly. However, it’s also important to recognize that candidates are increasingly running outside of the party apparatus. Senator Barack Obama, for example, defeated the establishment’s candidate in the presidential primaries. Governor Schwarzenegger is nowhere near the mainstream of the GOP.  And in California, at least, the parties have done little to earn the support or sympathy of voters. The state’s gridlock demonstrates what happens when partisanship trumps public policy.

Proposition 11 passed narrowly, but it passed. It’s success represents California’s first step down the road toward a new way of electing lawmakers and thus, hopefully, a more pragmatic government . Nothing happening in Sacramento should disuade voters from continuing this journey.

Politically Thankful

An economy in meltdown mode, the lamest of duck-like Administrations, two hot wars, a worldwide war on terror, carnage in India, the Middle East a powder keg with Iran going nuclear and so on and so forth. Without sounding like a Billy Joel song, there’s a lot to be concerned about this Thanksgiving. Yet, there’s always something in the cup, even if that proverbial cub is half broken. So here’s a short, incomplete and random list of things to be thankful for, politically, this day of being thankful. Feel free to leave a comment with your own list.

1. Be Thankful Change is Coming.  The election of Senator Barack Obamais thanks-worthy on so many levels. Even leaving aside the culture change that is sure to come with an African-American family int he White House, there’s the hope of a competent government addressing tough problems in a realistic, pragmatic fashion. While President-elect Obama symbolizes the change he promises, his campaign and transition indicate a level of competence not seen in Washington in years.

2. Be Thankful the Bush Administration is Leaving. Even supporters and admirers of President George W. Bush have to thankful that his tenure in the oval office is coming to an end. He’s done some things right, but overall, his record as president is abysmal. While coming to office as the champion of “compassionate conservatism” his administration proved to be neither compassionate nor conservative (fiscally, at least). After eight years America’s standard of living has declined, our standing in the world has declined, and we lack the ability to unify even in the face of tremendous challenges. January 20th can’t come too soon.

3. Be Thankful for Checks and Balances in Washington. It might look like the Democrats are in complete control of the federal government. They won the White House, increased their majority in the House and are just two votes shy of being able to overcome Republican filibusters with two Senate seats remaining. As any reader of this blog has determined, I’m a Democrat. Yet the idea of one-party rule — regardless of the party — concerns me deeply. Time and again, when one party gains too much control over the government it overreaches. Until the laws of unintended consequences is repealed, having a check on absolute power is a good thing. It forces the majority to pause, listen to the opposition and make adjustments. The result is (usually) better legislation than would have occurred if the party in power were unchecked.

4. Be Thankful the Democratic Party is More Diverse Than It Was Before. While lacking super-majorities, the Democrats in Congress have substantial majorities to work with. While some fear this will result in liberals running amok, the reality is, the Democratic majorities are far from homogeneous. As Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post pointed out, there’s a large number of moderates and conservatives in the most recent classes of lawmakers. Approximately one-third of the Democratic House majority come from districts with”Republican underpinnings (at least at the presidential level.” The Democratic Leadership in both houses will need to accommodate these members if they hope to keep their majorities. The result should be more thoughtful legislation which, while progressive, could avoid swinging the pendulum too far to the left.

5. Be Thankful for Checks and Balances in Sacramento. Democrats increased their majorities in the California legislature, but failed to achieve the two-thirds super majorities they need to safely ignore Republicans. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is that the Republicans in Sacramento are so fixated on avoiding new taxes (while preserving tax breaks, no matter how unfair, already in place) that Sacramento has become a childish, dysfunctional example of government gone silly. Ideology is great. Making a political point is to be expected. Destroying the state’s economy in the name of ideological political points is governmental malpractice. Legislators of both parties need to grow up, quit hiding behind worn out slogans, and start solving problems. Then we’d really have something to be thankful for.

6. Be Thankful Americans Rejected the Politics of Division. Many had come to believe that the way to electoral success in America was to demonize your opponent. That was the Karl Rove approach to winning — and it worked. This year we had Senator John Edwards calling health insurance executives “evil”Governor Sarah Palin rallying the “real America” against the socialists who fail to “see America like you and I see America.” Senator Edwards lost and so did Governor Palin and her running mate, Senator John McCain. Americans are tired of “us versus them” politics. That doesn’t mean it’s gone away entirely; just ask a Wall Street CEO. But the strategy of demonization and division backfired. Senator John McCain’s aura of being a straight shooter shattered when he descended into the Rovian mud. So did his dream of becoming president.

7. Be Thankful There’s Always Another Election.  Change was a campaign slogan this year, but it’s been an American reality since our founding. Every two years we hold those in power accountable. Certainly, there are obstacles. Incumbency is still the most powerful factor in any particular election, followed closely by money. Yet each election night tells a story and brings change. It keeps those in power accountable and, as importantly, nervous. And that’s a good thing.

So that’s my short list for Thanksgiving. I hope you’ll add to it. And I hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.

Will Republicans be the Party of Slash-and-Burn or of Ideas?

A few days ago I wrote about the need for the Republican party to choose between the political approaches of Governor Sarah Palin or Congressman Rahm Emanuel How the GOP is grappling with that choice was on display at the Republican Governor’s meeting last week. As reported by Jonathan Martin in Politico, there’s a stark contrast in how Republican governors interpret their thrashing at the polls this year. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour claimed Senator John McCain could have defeated Senator Barack Obama “by rendering him unacceptable to American voters. ‘And the McCain campaign did not choose to try to make that argument.'”

This is the Rovian view: by destroying the opposition it doesn’t matter what one’s own beliefs are, voters will have no one else to turn to.

Tim Pawlenty, the Governor of Minnesota, expressed the opposite perspective. Until the GOP can again compete in the northeast, Pacific Coast and much of the Great Lakes states, Governor Pawlenty argued it “cannot be a majoirty governing party.” As described by Mr. Martin, Governor Pawlenty “doesn’t advocate for a major ideological shift—few prominent voices in the party are—but rather for aggressively offering solutions on issues such as health care, energy and education that have been viewed as Democratic turf.”

So here’s crux of the Republican dilemma. It can become the party of slash and burn as embodied by Governor Palin and encouraged by Governor Barbour. Or it can become a party of ideas as advocated by Governor Pawlenty.

The choice is simple. Making it may not be.

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Senator Palin. President McCain. An October Surprise.

OK. This will never happen, but it’s fun to think about. And considering all the twists and turns in the presidential campaign so far, this one isn’t so far fetched. After all, it only results in Governor Sarah Palin becoming a United States Senator and Senator John McCain winning the presidency. What could be so hard?

Here’s the key elements of this October Surprise:

  1. With the conviction of Senator Ted Stevens today on all seven of the corruption counts he faced, Alaskan Republicans are faced with the prospects of backing a felon on election day. Polls already show the Democrat, Anchorage Mayor Mark Gegich, to be ahead. In political circles, being convicted of seven felonies is “unhelpful.”
  2. Governor Palin is dragging down the Republican presidential ticket. Although she’s rallied the base she’s failed to help Senator McCain with the independent and swing voters he needs. By selecting Governor Palin, however, Senator McCain has demonstrated his willingness to compromise his principles in order to assuage the conservative wing of his party. In other words, he’s paid his dues.

Holding on to the Alaskan Senate seat is critical to Republicans. If Democrats attain a 60 seat majority they can stop filibusters and make the Republican minority in the upper house nearly irrelevant. At the same time, the McCain-Palin ticket is cruising for a bruising.

Drastic times require drastic measures.

Here’s what should happen: the Alaska Republican Party should demand Senator Stevens resign from his nomination for the Senate. It should ten request, in the strongest terms, that Governor Sarah Palin return to Alaska to run in his place. Senator McCain should then replace Governor Palin with former Pennsylvania Governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. While pro-life conservatives will go ballistic with the usually pro-choice Governor Ridge on the ticket, the move should put Pennsylvania in play and provide a boost in toss-up states like Indiana, Virginia, Missouri and Ohio. As Senator McCain reminds voters of his no-tax, straight talking, national security credentials, his surrogates would remind conservative Republicans that President McCain will appoint Supreme Court Justices to their liking. 

The result: well, who knows? But do Republicans have anything to lose? The chances of holding onto the Alaskan Senate seat has fallen to zero. The odds of keeping the White House are long. But this last minute shuffle would create a brand new dynamic. The confusion and chaos would leave no room for Senator Barack Obama to make his closing argument for the presidency. Meanwhile, the sheer audacity of the move would demonstrate Senator McCain’s willingness to take new approaches to big problems.

And it sure would be fun.

No Surprise: McCain’s Attacks on GOP Undermines Leadership

Senator John McCain suspended his presidential campaign (in theory) last week in order to help fashion a financial rescue plan that could pass Congress and avert an economic meltdown. He focused his time and effort extensively, although not exclusively, on lining up support from House Republicans. That only one-third of them voted for the bailout yesterday is not wholly the fault of Senator McCain. Nor is it surprising that they did not choose to follow their party’s leader. After all, ever since the Republican convention, Senator McCain has been running away from his party, lambasting incumbents and generally making re-election for his fellow Republicans a lot tougher. Why would House Republicans follow someone like that?

Consider his view of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 by conservatives led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In a line from his acceptance speech on September 5th and repeated in last week’s presidential debate, Senator McCain said, “We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us.” The “us” he’s talking about includes the Republican members of Congress up for reelection this year. Having the leader of your party condemn you for being part of the “problem in Washington” is not likely to make it into many of their campaign brochures.

Then there’s his rants against earmarks. These are appropriation of federal dollars for specific purposes and are usually tacked onto bills without the formal review given other Congressional spending. As a result of this lack of scrutiny, they are often wasteful, used to reward supporters or in other ways bolster the reelection prospects of their sponsor. To say the  earmark system has been abused is an understatement.

Senator McCain sometimes appears to see earmarks as the root of all evil. In the first presidential debate, when pressed for a response to the economic crisis, Senator McCain turn the question into a diatribe against pork barrel spending more than once. His basic message is that earmarks corrupt politicians and anyone who engages in this practice — which is virtually all Members of Congress of both parties and his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin — has sinned. Again, this is not a boon to the reelection campaign of many GOP incumbents.

Running against Washington is a time honored tradition in American politics. Senator McCain has made it into an art form. That’s fine for him. It’s tough for Republicans running for reelection.

Senator McCain can’t expect to hammer away at the corrupt nature of his fellow Republicans, even implicitly, and then expect them to follow him in supporting unpopular legislation. Leadership is more than a position. It’s built on trust, respect and common bonds, among other factors. It’s hard to trust someone who has made a career out of demeaning you. It’s tough to respect someone who puts you down. It’s difficult to bond with a leader who undermines you.

Senator McCain proclaims himself a Maverick. It is a title and position that sets him apart from other politicians. It also is an approach that, as his inability to lead House Republicans to support the financial bailout bill demonstrates, will make it harder for him to lead were he to become president.

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Is GOP Trying to Remain the Minority Party in California?

The Democrats in California have it way too easy. Keeping their majority in the legislature is simple — all they have to do is show up and read the newspaper. The GOP will have done something to communicate to the state’s voters that they’re out-of-step, out-of-bounds or out-of-their-minds.

Two stories in today’s Sacramento Bee illustrate the point. The first involves a bible study course sponsored by Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines. Studying scripture isn’t the problem. If lawmakers want to study the bible or Shakespeare or Orson Scott Card, I don’t really care. The intolerance of the leader of those study sessions, however, is reminding independent minded voters, however, of how exclusionary the GOP can be sometimes.

Ralph Drollinger, who teaches these weekly bible classes, attacked lawmakers attending a rival bible fellowship class that embraced people of all faiths without insisting that they accept Jesus Christ as Messiah. Writing on his Capitol Ministries web site, he labeled this approach as “more than disgusting to our Lord and Savior.” His basic message is that you either accept in a manner that meets Mr. Drollinger’s criteria or your spiritual beliefs are meaningless. To believe in Jesus Christ as anything other than the messiah “is a deadly lie,” according to Mr. Drollinger.

People can believe what they want. If Mr. Drollinger believes his way is the only heavenly highway, well good for him. I think he’s wrong. So do the Catholics he once described as practicing a “false religion” according to the Bee. But then, my guess is we disagree on lots of things. The Bee also quotes him as saying that it is “sinful for a woman lawmaker to be away from her children four days a week while in Sacramento.”

What’s harmful to Republicans is not the specific rantings of this zealot. It’s that it belies their claim to being the party of the “Big Tent.” Mr. Drollinger’s views, presumably, reflect the perspective of those attending his GOP sponsored classes. Inviting a religious  bigot into the capitol, one who vilifies and literally damns those who disagree with him as “sinful” and an “affront to God” could explain why the tent isn’t as big as the GOP claim, and why it’s doomed to get even smaller in the state over time.

The second article in today’s Sacramento Bee concerns efforts to tighten up a tax loophole that allows wealthy Californians to purchase yachts, RVs and other big ticket items, park them out-of-state for 90 days, and avoid paying Califonria state sales and use taxes on the purchase. Republicans refuse to close this tax dodge, some of them claiming they are protecting the job of the “immigrant who sprays fiberglass on a boat …” according to the Bee.

Compared to the state’s multi-billion dollar deficit, there’s not a lot of money at stake here: about $21 million. But every dollar counts. So Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrats in the legislature want to extend how long the purchased item needs to remain outside of California from 90-days to one year. Republicans are blocking the measure. The highly regarded and bi-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said the change would not detrimentally impact the state’s economy. Many of the Republicans, apparently blessed with information from a higher source, disagrees.

Apparently GOP lawmakers believe that the tax code they inherited upon taking office is sacrosanct, flawless and untouchable. Never mind logic. Never mind the facts. Never mind fairness. Republicans oppose tax increases. Period. That means the tax code cannot be changed, even if that means defending indefensible tax loopholes.

These two stories point out an absolutism among Republicans that make most Californians uncomfortable. Why should independents, Democrats and moderate Republicans support a party who considers them damned by God? Who would rather take medical care away from poor children than force the rich to pay a sales tax on the RVs and yachts they buy?

Republicans hold just 15 seats in the 40-member Senate. Two of those seats are vulnerable. If they go to challengers the Democrats would have the two-thirds vote they need in the upper house to pass anything they want.

In the Assembly, Republicans hold only 32 of the state’s 80 Assembly seats. That’s only five seats away from complete irrelevancy. The state would be better served by a more balanced legislature. One in which pragmatism is acknowledged as a virtue, not a sin. One where seeking solutions is more important than blindly adhering to the strict construction of campaign platitudes. Republicans who long for the days of Ronald Reagan should remember he was one of the most pragmatic governors in the state’s history. He was also one of the most tolerant.

But the California Republican party of Ronald Reagan is gone. The GOP now seems to be in the hands of politicians out-of-step with the majority of Californians. And the Democrats proclaim, “Hallelujah!”