| 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.