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The Deliberate Strangulation of Democracy

by: Robert Cruickshank

Fri Aug 21, 2009 at 15:52:00 PM PDT

Harold Meyerson has an excellent op-ed in today's LA Times. The ostensible topic is moving California to a unicameral legislature, and Meyerson gives some excellent reasons why this is 45 years overdue:

In this spirit of reinvention, then, permit me a few modest queries: Why in the world do we have a two-house Legislature?

What does the state Senate do that the Assembly doesn't, and vice versa? In the name of fostering transparency, ending gridlock, curtailing backroom deals and creating a more responsive government, why doesn't California just abolish the Senate and create a larger Assembly?

Meyerson explains that before the landmark Reynolds v. Sims decision in 1964 that mandated all legislative districts have equal population, the California State Senate was apportioned by county. Each Senate district had a minimum of one whole county and a maximum of three. Meyerson cites the case of Senator Richard Richards, who represented 6 million people in LA County, whereas Alpine, Mono and Inyo Counties, with a population of 144,000, also had one Senator.

After Reynolds v. Sims the rationale for a second legislative chamber was gone. But the existence of a Senate did not itself cause legislative problems until the Zombie Death Cult expressed its obstructionist agenda in full flower - i.e. the last 5 or 6 years.

Another possible option Meyerson floats is to parliamentize state government:

One move that could foster such a shift would be to change the post of governor from a directly elected one to a prime-ministerial one. A Californian would become governor when his or her party (or coalition of parties) attained a majority in the unicameral Legislature. State government would actually have a common purpose and the capacity to further its goals.

Such a move would run counter to the American tradition of the separation of powers, but as our public works and services fall behind those of European and other nations with parliamentary systems, it's time to question how well such a separation really serves our country and our state in the competitive global economy of the 21st century.

I've always been intrigued by the system, and consider this well worth exploring. Parliamentary government serves the Canadian provinces and Australian states quite well, not to mention the European nations Meyerson alludes to. It would certainly help make the state government much more accountable, as voters would have no doubt who they need to blame and remove from power when government fails to address public wants and needs.

Certainly abolition of the State Senate alone would not solve our governance crisis. But as Meyerson argues in what I believe to be the true point of his op-ed, it would help us decongest government and enable it to address problems, instead of tolerating a government whose checks and balances have been exploited by the right-wing to destroy government and prevent collective action to solve common problems:

In both Sacramento and Washington, our governments have become all checks-and-balances with no discernible forward motion. The two-thirds-vote requirement in the state Legislature and the filibuster in the U.S. Senate create a form of minority rule that both thwarts attempts to keep government responsive to changing social needs and negates the consequences of elections.

California needs a government capable of expanding, not decimating, the world's greatest public university; of ensuring the health of its children, not throwing them off the rolls....

It would be a bold move. And I remember a California that used to do bold things.

The United States, and California in particular, are entering the first stages of major, even fundamental change. California has an emerging progressive majority and looks likely to increase that majority as demographic change continues. The effects of the severe recession have shown people the need for strong public services to address social and individual needs. Yet conservatives have managed to maintain power and shut out the majority of voters and even the majority of legislators from being able to implement policy.

Government in California as such no longer really exists. What we have instead is a political system built around the desire to prevent any progressive change from happening at all, where the right-wing sees government inaction as a de facto victory for their side.

As I argued at the Netroots Nation panel we hosted last weekend in Pittsburgh, at the root of our crisis in California is a crisis of democracy. Until democracy is restored to our state, it is going to be impossible to address any of our worsening problems.

Robert Cruickshank :: The Deliberate Strangulation of Democracy
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checks and balances (0.00 / 0)
  Not all bad.  What is bad is having unrepresentative
bodies (US Senate) and supermajorities (US Senate, California legislature).  That being said, I'd like to
see a California legislature of varying size, based on
population, with 100,000 people per district.

But who are we checking and balancing? (0.00 / 0)
In the US Constitution, they were trying to balance the power of the individual states with the power of the electorate generally, and the power of the executive against the power of the legislature.  The latter still makes a lot of sense; the former may not really make that much sense even at the federal level any more.

If we were writing a new constitution from scratch, perhaps instead we would balance the power of corporations against the power of the people.  That would make a great deal of sense.

But if you have to choose:  a powerful legislature, democratically elected and fully accountable for the actions of government -- that is, the model in the UK -- seems to work better on the whole than the overly complex model we have here in the US.  California could do a lot worse than run the state the way that Canadian provinces do.  Certainly, what we have now is much worse than that.

[ Parent ]
it's interesting (0.00 / 0)
the problem is that for too long people have been coming up with gimmicks like the 2/3 rule because they want to ensure certain outcomes of a deliberative body. Add to that ballot box budgeting and so on, and you see why it's a mess.

Personally I kinda would like to see us go back to the original system of electing Senators - by the state Legislature not the people. Sure all those political consultants will miss out on millions of dollars in TV ads, but I'd rather do that, and maybe get better people, than the two shills we have in office now.


Appointment by State Legislature (0.00 / 0)
  Most corrupt period in country's history, as potential
senators would bribe state legislators, then go to Washington to collect bribes.  The Millionaire's Club was
the name for the Senate, and with good reason.

[ Parent ]
Problem was corporate power, not legislative power (0.00 / 0)
I'd argue we are not less corrupt now; the corruption is just more respectable, and fully legal: we call them campaign finance donations, and lobbyists.

It's not legislative power vs. executive power you need to worry about.  It's the corrosive power of money, and the institutions through which money concentrates itself -- in particular, the limited liability corporation.

[ Parent ]
The ballgame is the 2/3 rules. (0.00 / 0)
The reform that is needed is simply elimination of the 2/3 rules.  That's all it takes to restore representative democracy in California:  let a majority of people govern the state.

Unicameral legislatures and parliamentary systems have interesting aspects, but the bicameral system and the American tradition of separation of powers have worked well -- brilliantly, in fact -- and will again in California, as soon as the 2/3 rules are eliminated.

repeal the 2/3rds requirement (0.00 / 0)
I agree, We need to repeal the 2/3rds requirement, The unicameral idea isn't even done in the UK as some would think, They have an Upper and a Lower House, The Upper is the House of Lords and is inherited, The Lower house is the House of Commons and is an Elected body. The current term limits could be expanded some to 3 or 4 terms also.

[ Parent ]
Abolition of the House of Lords... (0.00 / 0)
...is a frequent goal of reformers in British politics, as is abolition of the appointed Senate in Canadian politics. At one time Labour promised reform, around the time of the 1997 election, but they backed off once they realized the peerage was a great retirement once you were done as an MP.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
It would certainly help (0.00 / 0)
Obviously the 2/3rds rule is the tree blocking the tracks. Nothing else can get done until it is reformed.

That being said, its abolition will not solve our underlying crisis of democracy. It's possible, even likely that combined with changing election outcomes, a possible top-two primary, and more competitive districts as a result of Prop 11, we will see a more closely split Legislature in 2011 or 2013. There are plenty of unreliable Democrats who would suddenly find themselves empowered to cut deals with the Republicans.

The flaws of a sclerotic process that Harold Meyerson noted would still be there. And the overall system would be only marginally more democratic than what we have now.

No, I think it's time we had wholesale change. Eliminate the 2/3rds rule at the first possible opportunity, but we should not stop there.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
California Parliament (0.00 / 0)
I was glad to see the opinion piece this morning.  Some creative out-of-the-box thinking is needed.

There are several benefits to creating a Parliament.

First, it ensures a coherence of policy and direction for the state.

Second, we could encourage multiple parties representing more "niche" interests -- be they by special interest, geographic region, political ideology or whatever a group decides is worthy of bringing hem together and running candidates.  This is not a bad idea in as diverse a state as we have.

The majority would come from building a coalition which becomes the majority and elects the "prime minister."  This gives voice to many of the important interests in the state without having to cram them all into one of the two major parties.

Third, we would also not need to wait for elections on a pre-determined cycle if the majority is not satisfying its constituencies.  A simply vote of no confidence would allow the Governor as Chief of State to dissolve Parliament and call for elections. There is benefit to being able to respond to failure more quickly.

Much has to change though.  

First, this system cannot function with term limits.

Second, with the exception of the Governor, needed as Chief of State, the other constitutional offices would have to become appointed ones, controlled by the majority in Parliament.

Third, the size of the parliament would likely need to be significantly increased above the 80 in the Assembly. This, of course, adds another benefit, in that the members would represent far fewer people and hence would have to stay in closer touch with their constituents, but could also "specialize" in their districts interests more, making sure they are better articulated.

Two things I would want to ensure, though.  

The first is to maintain the independence of the judiciary.  If we combine two branches of the government into one (executive and legislative become the same), we still need the arbiter.

Secondly, while the Governor's power would be significantly reduced, I would want the Governor to maintain the power of vetoing Parliament's actions.  This is not typical of a parliamentary form of government but would place some check on the Parliaments power.  Checks on power are never a bad idea.  


The veto is overrated (0.00 / 0)
The system in the UK does without it entirely, since the veto power of the House of Lords was eliminated a century ago (thorough the efforts of Churchill and Lloyd George, no less).

Judicial review is indeed vital, but as long as the legislature has to appoint the major positions in the judiciary for life, it will tend to limit major changes in how the law is interpreted.

[ Parent ]
Some points (0.00 / 0)
If you want coherence to policy then you need to not have an executive veto. One does not exist in Australia, Canada or the UK and their constitutional protections, rights, and democratic processes work pretty well. An executive veto would be used the way Arnold uses it - to meddle in policy decisions.

A parliamentary system would not on its own encourage multiple parties or give them a role in picking a prime minister. Canada has a four party system federally, but only two parties have ever held the prime minister's office (Liberals and Conservatives), and only the NDP has ever had any seats or meaningful role in propping up a government of one of those two parties (and even then, only on occasion). Proportional representation would have to be adopted if people really wanted a multiparty system.

Ironically, there has been a trend of moving to fixed election dates in some parliamentary democracies. I do agree that unfixed dates make sense, with a rule that new elections must be held within 5 years of the previous election.

We would definitely want to increase the size of the legislature, and of course the independence of the judiciary has to be maintained.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
Parliaments and Prime Ministers (0.00 / 0)
I've heard from acquaintances in places that have parliamentary systems, that they often consider the prime minister thing to be a major weakness (disclaimer - I don't really know if my acquaintances' opinions are widely shared in their countries or not!) because it forces the various parties to form coalitions which then have a habit of falling apart and chaos ensues.

In a parliamentary system, the PM and other ministers are chosen from the members of parliament themselves, meaning they were only elected by the voters of one district and can easily lose their seats in the next election. (Well, maybe not in our gerrymandered districts, but that's another issue.) They are not subject to a vote of the entire electorate, just the parliament itself. I don't think that would go over well in our political culture.

IMHO the concept of three branches of govt that can keep tabs on each other like rock-paper-scissors is one of the better ideas of the founding fathers. We should keep the legislative and executive branches separate, but make the executive offices non-partisan. All candidates of all parties for each office together in a single general election with ranked-choice voting rules. That would more likely result in a governor (and other constitutional offices) who is at least acceptable to a majority of the entire electorate, and independent of the legislature and not subject to the whims of coalition-forming.

as for the first part (0.00 / 0)
that kind of instability (not necessarily a bad thing IMO) isn't actually limited to parliamentary systems. e.g. willie brown's coup as minority party speaker of the assembly IIRC in the 80s. minor parties would still have to win district elections, unless the new constitution's parliament was also proportionally allocated.

[ Parent ]
Instability has more to do with how people are elected (0.00 / 0)
Proportional representation together with a parliamentary system (the case in Israel and I believe also Italy) has a deserved reputation for instability.  I don't recommend that.

But systems with "first to the post" (what we have, and what the UK and Canada has) tends to be pretty stable, although it limits the views represented.  Hybrid systems like the one in Germany -- mostly first to the post, single rep districts, together with limited proportional representation for a smaller group of delegates -- seems to work well too, and would probably represent more points of view without degenerating into the kind of free-for-all you see in Israel.

[ Parent ]
The problem is (0.00 / 0)
That over time the three branches of government, intended to be coequal in power, are no longer equal and have not been for some time. During the Bush years Congress was essentially a parliament, with Cheney as PM, and with Democrats in a de facto coalition government with the Republicans.

California already does a decent job with its executive branch, as most of them are directly elected. Nonpartisan elections are not a good idea, though - they exist primarily to allow Republicans to obscure themselves and hide their true views from the public. I would oppose expansion of nonpartisan elections to any other offices as strongly as I possibly could.

Parliamentary systems do not deserve the reputation for instability they sometimes get - not every parliamentary democracy is Italy or the French Fourth Republic. (And even Italy has settled into a stable, if fascistic, two-party system since about 1996.) Canada, Australia, Ireland, Britain, Spain, Portugal, France, etc, etc, are just some examples of stable parliamentary democracies.

The method of picking a prime minister is often controversial. Israel has separated it from the election of the rest of the Knesset. But on the other hand, the PM becomes the leader of the party, and elections in a parliamentary system are often referenda on whether someone ought to be PM. Sometime in the next 9 months Britain will decide whether it wants Gordon Brown to continue in the position or replace him with David Cameron. Sure, it is technically an election between as many as four or five viable parties, depending on where in the UK you live, but the outcome will turn on voter assessments of the party leaders.

Parliamentary systems have their drawbacks and weaknesses, of course, but I am not convinced that the list of such flaws includes what you described above.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
A few comments (0.00 / 0)
I think the executive veto would be a useful tool in the American system, to safeguard against Parliamentary overreaching.  

Any student of Parliamentary politics will tell you that modern systems are very undemocratic between elections, as the rank & file members of the majority know that bucking the PM likely means an end to hopes of serving in government, and possibly an end to their legislative career as well.  So, expecting contraint on the premier from within the Assembly is not wise.  While I would hope that the governor would veto based on constitutional or (possibly) over-arching policy questions, I would want it there, with the caveat that a showdown between the two branches would result in an election for the Assembly, & if the premier is re-elected, the bill can be passed without signature.

I would like the idea of a composite house -- the majority elected from single-member districts, smaller than the current Assembly, and some elected either regionally or statewide in a proportional party list system.  You combine the benefits of local input over choosing "your" representative with the balanced representation of PR.

Term limits would have to go, I agree.  Personalities aside, does anyone REALLY think Bass has the experience to govern California?

On the bright side, all these independent boards & commissions can go too.  If the premier wants to test the skills of some hotshot young Assembly member, she can park him on the Natural Resources Board or something to prove his mettle.

The great unanswered question though -- how to handle elections?  With snap elections, there really isn't time for primaries as we do them now.  We would either have to hold scramble-style elections as in CD 10, or have caucuses appoint nominees, or have quickie elections -- 4 weeks from the call to the primary, and the general election 3 weeks later.  (I'm not a particular fan of IRO for elections like this.  The primary winner should be given the chance to persuade his opponent's supporters that he is still better than the opposition.)

Single House Legislature (0.00 / 0)
I support this idea fully with the caveat that you should have about 120 members so that every member represents a smaller area.

Why are you just looking at England? (0.00 / 0)
Germany has probably the most effective and representative form of democracy--as do the Scandinavian countries. I agree that a unicameral system is great, but people throw around the word "parliamentary system" without really knowing  what they mean by it. Central European parliamentary systems make the most sense. If you have proportional representation combined with a district system, which is achieved by having an elastic number of seats in the legislature, you achieve the two great goals of democracy: representation by locality and representation by ideology. That is greatly needed here in California, because most people do not identify with either of the two major parties. It also makes the system more transparent, because interests give money to parties, not to individual representatives for their campaigns. These parties are narrow enough in their interests so that monied interests cannot pay off all "two parties" (or certain key representatives) but instead have to choose the party that best represents their interests to give campaign monies to. Anyways, I'm glad someone is thinking outside the box. Anglo systems of government are not the best in the world. We have been behind the game for quite some time. Europe has gone through many different systems in the past century and have experimented with the bad and the good, but I think we could learn a lot looking to them. Ask any comparative political scientist, and they will straight up tell you that our system isn't so much a system as it is a straight jacket on democracy itself.

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