The Death and Possible Re-Birth of Negotiation


Whether or not the dozen California Republican legislators (more than enough for a minyan!) who have refused to join the politically suicidal Taxpayers Caucus are all modern day Pharisees, Gov. Jerry Brown was not far off the mark comparing them to Nicodemus ben Gurion, the prominent Jewish elder who is said to have met with Jesus under cover of night to avoid the risk of ostracism.*

“I’m not going to blow their cover,” Brown said of the individuals he’s been meeting with – those who have declined to drink the Kool Aid being dispensed by the Grover Norquist-inspired Ostrich Phalanx and henchmen, like our pal Jon Fleischman.

The small band of savvy Republicans appear to get that a) they are in a position to extract at least some of their cherished goals in exchange for merely voting to put Brown’s tax extensions on the June ballot and b) their old world is rapidly changing, because of the new rules of redistricting and the top-two primary system, so they can’t afford to stand in the doorway and block up the hall.

As Rob Stutzman, the Republican strategist who advised Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor, put it: “They have more leverage than they’ve had at any time arguably over the last decade.” But then guys like Stutzman and Jim Brulte, the former legislative leader, are old-school pols who believe, like Ronald Reagan did, that you negotiate to reach agreement and that agreement – i.e. governance — is a good thing.

At a time when “compromise” has been stricken from the actions and vocabulary of Tea Partiers in Washington and the intransigent governor of Wisconsin (except as a pejorative to attack those who disagree with their rigid stances), the efforts to strike a deal by a handful of GOP legislators in Sacramento is a smart and responsible move, both as policy and as politics.

By bucking the unrelenting pressure of no-compromise apparatchiks and no-tax ideologues in their party’s extremist wing, these Republicans – like Sam Blakeslee, Anthony Cannella, Bill Tom Berryhill, and Bob Huff, to name a few — have set the stage for a political counter-narrative to the bitter union-busting drama being played out in Madison, and the looming threat of a federal government shut-down by Congress under Weeper of the House John Boehner.

If the GOP’s Responsible Caucus can wring enough legislative concessions from Brown to justify the intraparty flak they’ll take for helping him pass the key element of his plan – a statewide vote on extending $12 billion in temporary higher taxes and fees – they also will have a dealt a major blow to the politics of deadlock that have dominated California for a generation.

Urging them on – with visions of business-friendly reforms dancing in their heads – are groups like the Bay Area Council, Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and even the California Chamber.

It should be noted, by the way, that Brown’s problem is not just with Republicans. Forces on the Democratic left are extremely upset about the massive spending cuts Brown has already extracted and, if the Republicans seeking a deal overplay their hand and some interest group – the California Teachers Association, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, Service Employees International Union, or any other – decides to oppose whatever deal Brown negotiates, the whole thing could explode.

A way out — our sources are betting — is at best a 50-50 proposition.

As Steve Glazer, Brown’s senior adviser told Calbuzz over the weekend: “We’re sitting on bar stools in a foot of gasoline and everybody’s got a match.”

The ossification of Sacramento was created by a battery of political circumstances, including some so-called “reforms,” that together had the unintended consequence of bogging down the Capitol in the gridlock of polarization and partisanship. The key ingredients in hardening the political cement are 1) diminished party registration 2) non-competitive elections and 3) term limits.

Add to these closed primaries, campaign contribution limits that don’t apply to interest groups and a cable-driven coarsening of political dialogue and you have a recipe for impasse. That’s how we arrived at a situation where negotiation is seen as collaboration and compromise is regarded as capitulation.

Ironically, the sudden willingness of at least a few members of the minority to consider compromise, negotiation and deal-making to be useful and acceptable tools, in place of the just-say-no obstructionism that has long marked the GOP position, may itself have been triggered by two new reforms: a new, non-partisan citizens commission that is redistricting the state and a new “top-two” primary system are both designed to encourage more moderate politics; they may be working even before they’ve fully taken effect.

“With open primaries in redistricted seats in a presidential election all the old rules are out the door,” said Brulte.

Diminished party registration, wherein moderates and those with loose party affiliations have registered in ever greater numbers as Decline to State (independent of a party), has meant that those who still vote in their party primaries are the most ideological, the most partisan and the most intractable voters in any particular political jurisdiction.

In October 1994, Democrats had 49% of registration, Republicans 37% and DTS 10%. In October 2010, Democrats were 44%, Republicans 31% and DTS 20%. Who left the Democratic and Republican parties (or chose not to join them)? Moderates who didn’t want to be part of the left and right wings of the electorate.

So those who won their party primaries – and thus those eventually elected to the Assembly and state Senate – reflected (and shaped) the ideological cast of their districts.  Legislators who refuse to negotiate toward an agreement are, in many cases, perfectly reflecting the narrow electorate – in existing districts — who sent them to Sacramento. It’s the hard core who’s voting.

Non-competitive seats, partially a function of gerrymandering and partly a function of living patterns of the California population, have ensured the election, re-election, and re-re-election of the same voices and interests year in and year out.

One liberal may replace another; one conservative may follow a predecessor, but the ideological shape and tone and color remains the same. The general election means little in most cases because all the action is during the primary. If an incumbent – or a candidate who appears to be an incumbent because he or she served in a different office – is in the race, you can all but forget about it.

Few seats are actually competitive and where they are, it’s almost always just in the race to see who gets to represent the party in November.

Term limits have a compounded negative effect. On the one hand, they drive those just elected to spend ever greater amounts of time planning for their re-election and advancement to another seat in a different house. On the other hand, they leave Sacramento with a neophyte corps of legislators who have no institutional knowledge, no long-term commitment, no real power base in their own communities and less knowledge than the permanent legislative staff and the army of lobbyists who are always on the case.

Moreover, leadership is a joke: it’s almost impossible to enforce caucus discipline, it’s increasingly difficult to speak with one voice for either party, “leaders” are in place long enough to get a cup of coffee and replaced before they’ve found the secret drawer in the big desk or learned the name of the janitor who empties their trash can.

Coupled with campaign contribution limitations that don’t apply to interest groups, term limits mean that instead of the special interests needing the lawmaker, it’s the other way around – legislators need the special interests more than the pleaders need them.

And Now for Something
Completely Different

The handful of GOP legislators who are quietly (secretly) negotiating with Gov. Brown just may get this: by the end of August, the non-partisan redistricting of California legislative boundaries should be completed and the next round of elections will not involve party primaries but a top-two system of electing candidates.

We may even see big labor begin to play a role in what used to be Republican districts. Sources tell Calbuzz there’s talk in the labor community about spending in districts where particular legislators have made it a point to work against their interests.

Candidates who are identified as obstructionist or worse, responsible for massive teacher layoffs, shorter school years, public safety cutbacks, closed state parks, etc., are going to have one hell of a time picking up enough moderate and independent votes to keep their offices. They will NOT be running in tailored districts and they won’t have a free shot at a party position.

You gotta wonder how smart it is to rely on right-wing operators, who ask, like FlashReport’s Fleischman, if “The CalChamber is Ready to Betray Taxpayers Again?” As a Republican, just exactly what is your base if you can’t include the Chamber of Commerce?

No wonder Flash and his cronies on the right are hoping at the GOP convention to change the Republican Party’s rules to give central committees the power to dub candidates official GOP standard bearers. That may their only weapon and frankly, we’re not sure, even if they can adopt this Soviet Rule, that it would do the trick for their people.

As Steve Harmon of the Contra Costa Times so ably noted, the notion that Republicans who voted for tax hikes under Gov. Arnold Schwarzmuscle were driven from office is mostly bunk. “Of the six Republicans who voted for taxes (in 2009), only one later went on to defeat in a Republican primary. Two captured GOP nominations in statewide contests, another was elected to a county post and two others dropped out of politics.”

And that was before redistricting and the top-two primary system. And before Brown, who was allowed to dispense his vows of poverty and chastity in order to leave the seminary, offered dispensation to any Republicans who signed the GOP anti-tax pledge.

* It was to Nicodemus, as reported in the Gospel of John (3:16), that Jesus, after saying that man must be reborn in faith, offered this central concept: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

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There are 5 comments for this post

  1. avatar no more ink? says:

    2 Q’s

    1. Re. DTS voters not voting in primaries — can’t they (don’t they) request a Dem. or Rep. ballot and vote?
    2. More importantly, are there really secret drawers in the big desks?

  2. avatar Ernie Konnyu says:

    Governor Brown’s offer to honestly solve (instead of falsely claim a real budget solution a la Gov. Schwartzmuscle) California’s budget crisis should be supported by both parties’ thinking lawmakers. Further, given that the Governor is now negotiating with Republican lawmakers on what form of pension reform should be included in the June voter package, makes common sense for Republicans.

    Through these signs I am sure Californians will win this June so let’s get it done!

    Ernie Konnyu, Former Chairman, Policy Committee of the
    Assembly Republican Caucus

    • avatar chrisfinnie says:

      Surely the world is coming to an end! I agree with Ernie.

      Most public-employee pensions in California are modest. They are also contracts we have made with these employees over decades as Jon Stewart so rightly pointed out last week. But there are about 16,000 retirees–mostly the top brass in their particular service from prisons to the UC system (which when I was in college, didn’t really seem all that different!) who receive retirement packages worthy of Wall Street moguls. Some get a couple of these gold-plated packages. These are the abuses that must be changed. For a good piece on pensions, see Zach Carter’s in-depth discussion of the facts in today’s Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/07/state-pension-plans_n_829112.html

  3. avatar SezMe says:

    I’m a DTS and I vote in every election. So, yes, “no more ink?”, all the DTS does is state to the poll worker which ballot they want and then vote.

    I support Brown’s budget efforts but have to express my concern regarding the horrible shifting of the Overton Window. On the cut side, they’re discussing whether to slash the social safety net of slash and burn it. Where are the similar negotiations on, for example, increasing the corporate tax rate or an extraction tax or a more progressive taxing brackets or a financial transaction tax, etc., etc., etc. Such concepts as these aren’t even on the table.

    So, in a very real sense, even if Brown wins, California loses.

    • avatar chrisfinnie says:

      I seem to be unusually agreeable lately. But I agree with SezMe too. Raising revenues has to be part of the equation. As part of recent budget extortion deals, the state gave up $2.5 billion a year in corporate taxes. This benefited the 6 largest corporations in the state–and blasted an even bigger hole in our state budget.

      As you say, Alaska and Texas have extraction taxes. But California does not. And the usual cant that the oil companies will choose to do business elsewhere if we implement that tax is just stupid. They can’t. They have to be where the oil is.

      However, as usual, even with all these cuts, Democrats can’t get Republicans to vote on a budget. Five Senate Republicans signed a letter to the governor yesterday to tell him why. They’re holding out for a spending cap like the one that failed so miserably in Colorado. They want to privatize state services like they do it in Texas. The argument has always been that it saves taxpayers money and gives better services. But I know few Texans who would agree with the latter. And their California-size budget deficit gives lie to the former. Last, but never least, the GOP is holding out for tax cuts. Yep. Our state revenues aren’t low enough, Senators Blakeslee, Harman, Emmerson, Cannella, and Berryhill want to cut them some more to “improve fairness.” I’ll give you three guesses who this “fairness” will benefit. And really, the first two don’t count.

      If Calbuzz readers live in the districts of any of these holdouts, I suggest you give them a friendly call. Tell them the rest of us can’t afford more “fairness” for their corporate pals. Then call governor Brown and tell him to push for more revenues. I plan to.

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