California has a spending problem. As State Senator Tom McClintock likes to point out, population and inflation combined have grown at a rate of 21% the past four years; revenue has grown 25%. Yet California government spending has grown 40%. The result is an unprecedented state budget deficit expected to exceed $35 billion.
California Republicans cannot agree on a solution, but most are united in their opposition to a proposed initiative that would appear on the March 2004 ballot, lowering the requirement to pass the state budget from two-thirds to 55% of the legislature. They cling to the current two-thirds rule as a desperate attempt to keep what little leverage they have in the budget debate.
What California Republicans don't seem to understand is that the two-thirds budget rule is a legacy of Progressivism, the political movement and political thought that provided the foundation for modern liberalism. At the heart of that liberalism has been the attempt to replace constitutional government with a progressive, bureaucratic "state," and a corresponding effort to minimize the influence of political parties, and politics itself.
Instead of government by consent of the governed, liberals prefer government by appointed boards of experts and regulatory agencies. They think only professional, non-partisan, non-political bureaucrats can unite the American people and lead them happily into the unknown future. Progressive political loyalty finds its home in the bureaucracy, not political parties. Parties are partisan and divisive—obstacles to liberal "progress."
The two-thirds budget requirement, passed in the midst of the Great Depression, was a key Progressive reform. Progressive architects wanted to alter the California Constitution so that the budget would necessarily be "bi-partisan," assuming neither party would possess a two-thirds majority. In practice this means neither Democrats nor Republicans are responsible for the most important activity of the state government: deciding what it will do and how much money it will spend doing it.
Democrats almost have a two-thirds majority in the California Assembly and Senate, yet they are growing impatient. They want complete control of the budget process now, without the need to compromise with a handful of Republicans. Republicans, in turn, are howling that this will eliminate what little influence they now have over the budget.
But Republicans should let Democrats have it.
Republicans should stop their squawking for a while and study some of the advice offered in that masterpiece of political science, The Federalist Papers. There, they would learn of the importance of responsibility and accountability. They would learn that political power is dangerous, but necessary, which is why the institutions of government should check the tendency of government to aggregate power for itself. They would also understand why those in control of government should be granted the power necessary to accomplish their constitutional duties, but also be held strictly accountable for their actions.
The California Constitution stands as a grand experiment in Progressivism. From the initiative process to the recall and referendum to the non-partisan elected offices and judges—to the two-thirds requirement to pass the budget—the California Constitution perhaps goes farther than any other state in weakening elected officials, removing political accountability, and driving out partisanship from state government and state politics.
The Progressive design of the California Constitution has encouraged the replacement of electoral politics and parties with a massive corps of bureaucratic "experts" who administer the affairs of the regulatory state. If in doubt, consider the plight of someone wanting to build a home or start a business: it is much more important to know the folks on the local zoning board, or the Coastal Commission if you live by the beach, than members of the legislature.
The solution to California's budget problems will not be found in Progressive policies like the two-thirds budget rule, where Democrats throw table scraps to Republicans who play along. Rather, the solution must be emphatically political, and emphatically partisan. Let Democrats pass a budget along a party line vote, and then hammer away at the irresponsibility with which they spend our money.
Republicans must show how liberal policies and liberal bureaucracy have caused the real harm we are suffering today, and explain what limited, constitutional government in California would look like. This could be the Republican recipe for winning elections up and down the state, if only Republicans have the intelligence and political will to do it.