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Posts Tagged ‘partisan stalemate’



The Death and Possible Re-Birth of Negotiation

Monday, March 7th, 2011

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.”

Sacto Dysfunction Mirrors Whacko Views of Voters

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Just six weeks before Jerry Brown rolls out the long-awaited opening of “Krusty: The Sequel,” the most fundamental problem the new governor faces  is neither the $25 billion state deficit nor the utter  dysfunction of the Capitol: it’s California’s dual personality disorder.

As much as politicians, government geeks and bureaucrats — not to mention “the media” –  get blamed, deservedly, for the mess the state is in, there stands a mountain of evidence showing that the polarized partisan gridlock in Sacramento perfectly reflects the sentiments of the electorate.

The plain fact is that California’s litany of problems is underpinned by an everything-for-nothing ethic among voters that is both conflicted and contradictory.

We first took note of the over-arching importance of this dynamic back before the earth cooled (“Calbuzz: The Prairie Years”) when we analyzed the confounding perspective of the electorate in advance of the disastrous May 19, 2009 special election. In that debacle, Governor Schwarzmuscle and the Democrat-dominated Legislature tried to have it both ways with a series of five initiatives that, variously, raised taxes and imposed some cuts in several popular programs.

But we’d be remiss if we didn’t also call out our fellow voters, who exhibit a maddening syndrome of self-canceling impulses about how to pay for their government.

What do policymakers see when they look at such data? Voters, pointing a gun to their own heads, screaming “Stop, before I shoot!”

This self-destructive, self-canceling world view of voters has grown both more acute and more chronic since then, as illustrated by some new data in  the most recent LA. Times/USC poll.  Among the findings, the survey found that:

–By a huge plurality – 44-6% — voters said they would rather cut spending than raise taxes to address the deficit (another 44% opted from some murky, unspecified combination).

–But by even larger margins, voters said they would either a) not support any cuts or b) favor more spending on K-12 education and health programs – the two largest items in the budget (for schools, 37% oppose reductions and 34% want more spending while 36% are against cuts and 20% want to spend more on health). The only area of the budget where there is strong sentiment for reducing expense is on prisons, where 71% favor cutting a great deal or some of current spending.

–Most troubling of all, by 70-24%, voters said that “there is enough waste and inefficiency in government spending that we can reduce most of the state deficit by cleaning up programs without cutting programs like health care and education” –  the fairy tale scenario that Meg Whitman tried to peddle, ranking up there with Santa showing up with the Great Pumpkin and the Tooth Fairy in tow. That’s how he rolls.

Our friend Joel Fox took a run at the Great Dichotomy the other day over at Fox and Hounds and offered a pretty good succinct synopsis of the problem.

So what to make of the California electorate’s pro-government, no more taxes dichotomy? Can we say that Californians have big hearts and small wallets? Or is something else going on here?

Many people believe in the California Dream. The notion of California as a place of opportunity cuts across demographics and ethnicities and is a thread that binds people in this most diverse of all states. Californians support proposals that will give people access to opportunity. I suspect that is why those polled would support avenues to citizenship and open doors at educational establishments and government programs to give people a hand up.

However, while supporting a basic framework of government support, voters clearly don’t want to pay for too much. Those responding to the survey think they already pay too much when they say the best avenue to a balanced budget is to cut spending.

Voters don’t trust government to deliver the opportunities they believe in… There is a strong sense amongst the electorate that those in government take care of themselves first.

During the campaign, Brown’s big proposal for addressing the budget mess was to lock all the legislators of both parties in a room and browbeat them with sweet reason until everyone agreed on solutions.

As a political matter, that seems to us to be 180 degrees wrong in dealing with the size, scope and depth of the problems the state now faces: Instead of spending his time in backrooms with Sacramento pols, Brown needs to get out of the Capitol and travel energetically around the state, conducting what amounts to a one-man basic civics education campaign, so that Californians truly understand a) what services state government actually provides; b) how much they cost; c) how they’re paid for.

Above all, he needs a full-blown strategy to build a shared public awareness of the simple facts of California’s predicament by breaking through the bumper sticker clichés and well-worn grooves of the political arguments that have straight jacketed California for a generation. Anything else is just tactics.

Campbell’s Egghead Budget Talk Wows Cato

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

campbellprofessorTom Campbell became the first politician in history Wednesday to have staff members hand out nine pages of photocopied economic charts to his audience before delivering a speech.

“If you would turn with me to page three,” the Republican wannabe governor began, speaking to a group of about 60 members and fans of the libertarian Cato Institute meeting in Santa Barbara.

Campbell, with both a PhD in economics and a law degree, who was no doubt the goody-goody in the front row who always had his hand up, led his listeners through a 30-minute seminar on the state budget crisis, monetary policy and the coming wave of inflation. His rather rudimentary visual aid handouts included five fever charts, three bar graphs and two tables, plus a full-page explanation of Milton Friedman’s money supply equation (MV=PQ).*

You gotta’ hand it to him, the guy knows his audience.

Over broiled chicken, rice, chardonnay and a light chocolate mousse with some kind of rolled cookie the size of a fireplace poker stuck in it, the Catoites listened raptly to Campbell’s pitch. When an institute official noted in his introduction that the conservative economist Friedman had been Campbell’s faculty adviser at the University of Chicago, they ooohed and ahhhed in the same way Calbuzz might if, oh say, Miss Universe strolled into world headquarters. When he’d finished his speech, they loudly applauded when he answered “Yes” to a question of whether he is running for governor.

“Right now, it’s all about name ID,” the candidate told Calbuzz in a pre-lunch chat, “and unlike my opponents, I don’t have the money to buy it.”

As a political matter, we asked Campbell, Arnold’s former state finance director, what he foresaw as the likely outcome of the festering budget mess in Sacramento. He ticked off three scenarios:

1-Obama and the federal government get involved in providing loan guarantees so California can go into the market and get Revenue Anticipation Warrants to pay its bills. He thinks this is unlikely politically, because it would cause too much resentment among other states, adding that if Obama does act, he worries the president will attach a bunch of strings to protect the unions as his top priority.

2-The Legislature throws up its hands, repeals its earlier approval of a two-year budget, and passes a new budget with $25+ billion in phony “anticipated revenues” or some such gimmick. Because it would be a new budget, Arnold would regain the power of the line item veto to cut any spending he wanted and the political onus for the pain would all be on him. “The constitution does not require the Legislature to pass a balanced budget; it requires the legislature to say they passed a balanced budget,” he said, dryly.

3-Dysfunctional partisan “stalemate” returns, the Legislature is unable to pass a budget, and the state starts missing payments on its bills sometime in July. At that point, he believes, some unpaid vendor or vendors would file a class action suit and the state would find itself in court being ordered by some federal judge (Article 1, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from defaulting, Campbell helpfully pointed out) to sell off assets and take other actions to pay the bills. The candidate said he sees this as “the most likely outcome.”

When Campbell talks about the budget, compared to the rest of the cock-and-bull-peddling gubernatorial pack, he ends up looking like the guy Diogenes spent his life searching for. To his credit, Campbell even told the tax-hating Cato crowd that a big part of his short-term solution for the budget mess would be temporary 36 cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax.

“I want to be candid,” he told them, “even if it loses me some voters.”

*Weed whacker footnote: In the money supply equation – MV=PQ:
M= money supply
V= velocity of money (i.e. how often money changes hands in a year).
P= price level
Q= GDP

Campbell figures that within the last year, the federal government has increased the nation’s money supply – through stimulus, TARP, tax rebates, mortgage bailouts, assistance to Freddie, Fannie, etc – by $2.8 trillion dollars, or about 34%. When the economy recovers, and the velocity exchange returns to normal, he estimates the practical impact of that will be an increase in inflation of at least 13 percent in the first year. Go figure.