Californiafication

CALIFORNIAFICATION…. I’m on the other coast, but from afar, California seems to have a basic problem when it comes to governing. Part of it is a public expectation of strong governmental services and benefits, coupled with revulsion to paying for them, but the structural issues are arguably more important.

On the one hand, Republicans in the state have moved to almost comically conservative levels, and can’t win legislative victories outside their stronghold areas. On the other, Democratic struggle to actually govern, because of mandatory super-majorities needed to advance an agenda.

If you’re starting to think this sounds familiar, there’s a good reason.

Nationwide, the electorate has high expectations on public services, but are generally resistant to tax increases. The GOP contingent in Congress has shrunk badly as the party has moved sharply to the right, but Democrats aren’t able to govern as they’d like, due in large part to a procedural, structural straightjacket.

Rich Yeselson proposed a thought experiment yesterday. Imagine if President Obama, as chief executives of yore used to do, was able to pursue his policy agenda by having a majority of the House and a majority of the Senate approve legislation he proposes. (This is old-school thinking, I know.) The stimulus would have been stronger; the health care bill would be more ambitious; the climate change bill could be further reaching, etc.

Except, that doesn’t seem to be on the table.

We are living through the Californiafication of America — a country in which the combination of a determined minority and a procedural supermajority legislative requirement makes it impossible to rationally address public policy challenges. And thus the Democratic president and his allies in Congress are evaluated on the basis of extreme compromise measures — supplicating to dispassionate Wise Men like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, buying Olympia Snowe a vacation home, working bills through 76 committees and countless “procedural” votes — rather than the substantive, policy achievements of bills that would merely require a simple majority to pass.

It is sheer good fortune that the Democrats had 59/60 Senate seats this cycle and thus were able to pass any stimulus at all, albeit the inadequate one they did. Think about it: With a robust 56 Senate Democratic seats, the stimulus would have failed — and otherwise, Galston/Brooks would be talking not about Obama’s “going too far,” but, rather, about a “failed Obama presidency.” And they would be wrong. What we would be witnessing — and are still witnessing — is a failed system of democratic governance. It’s something procedural liberals should be deeply concerned about and should remedy as quickly as possible.

In the abstract, the landscape probably seems a little ridiculous. After extraordinary failures, Republicans were pushed into a tiny, humiliated minority. Democrats received a mandate unlike any we’ve seen in a generation — a major presidential win (365 electoral votes), a huge House majority (256 seats, or 59%), and the largest Senate majority in decades. The GOP quickly became a small, discredited minority, and Democrats were positioned to do largely as they pleased.

And yet, the Californiafication issues persist.

Kevin Drum added, “In Washington DC, federal deficits have become enormous, Republican tax cuts have made them even worse, healthcare costs are skyrocketing, unemployment is about to break double digits, and it’s nearly impossible to seriously address these problems because the Republican Party has adopted a policy of making the filibuster a routine tool of state. If you can’t get 60 votes in the Senate, you can’t pass anything of consequence these days.”

With 58 Democrats and two independents who caucus with Democrats, it means necessary legislation to address pressing crises stalls every time Joe Lieberman starts to feel unloved or Ben Nelson has a bad day.

There’s a lot of talk in the political world about “reform” – – health care reform, energy reform, education reform, etc. When Americans elect a political party to deliver on an agenda, and it can’t because the system undermines democratic governance, it’s time for “structural reform” to be part of the conversation.