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"without Immediate Intervention Our Loved One Will Die"

In the past 24 hours, the California legislature has witnessed a triumphant visit from U.S. Airways Captain Chesley Sullenberger, a daring rescue of two people from a burning car in Sacramento by a Republican assemblyman moments before the car exploded, and an apparent palace coup in the Republican leadership of the state Senate. What it still has not produced (though rumors abound), as of 11:30 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday night, is a state budget--prompting the (only slightly overwrought) quotation above, from Democratic state Senator Alan Lowenthal.

The background here is that California is one of three states that require a supermajority vote to approve the state budget. The way this usually works, at least for the past several years, is that all the Democrats vote for the budget and after protracted theatrics manage to beg, threaten, or bribe however many Republicans they need to join them. The process is difficult enough in normal years, but with a $40 billion deficit to fill, this year it's on the verge of impossible. Democrats and Arnold Schwarzenegger have settled on a package that combines $14 billion in new taxes with $16 billion in spending cuts and $11 billion in borrowing. They've been able to round up the three Republican votes needed in the state assembly to pass the package, but have spent the past few days trying to find one more GOP senator to go along. Without a budget agreement, all state infrastructure projects are set to grind to a halt (a perfect anti-stimulus package!), including much-needed earthquake retrofits to bridges and roads. One assumes the legislature will get its act together just in the nick of time, since it would effectively waste $400 million to stop the projects and then start them up again later, but it's essentially a game of chicken with two players who have sworn that this time they won't swerve off the road, so a mutually destructive and irrational outcome is certainly a possibility.

There are a few lessons to be learned from this latest debacle in Sacramento. The first is that Arnold Schwarzenegger's mission to pull the state GOP to the center has pretty clearly failed. Bizarrely enough, one of the Republican holdouts on the budget is state Senator Abel Maldonado, from Santa Maria. Maldonado is the only Latino Republican in the Legislature and the only real GOP moderate in the state Senate. During the 2007 budget stalemate, he cast one of the critical crossover votes in favor of the budget. So why is he voting against it now? In large part, it seems, because he holds a grudge against Schwarzenegger for not coming to his aid during his 2006 campaign for state controller, in which Maldonado lost the Republican primary to a right-winger. Since 2005, Schwarzenegger has tried to walk a fine line, governing from the center without declaring all-out war on recalcitrant conservatives, which is supposedly why he stayed on the sidelines during Maldonado's race. He's given nice-sounding quotes to the press, but hasn't been willing to do the grunt work of building a centrist infrastructure from the ground up.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, it's hard not to wonder whether the governor--not to mention the state--might have been better served by starting an intra-party civil war with guns blazing. True, he probably wouldn't have succeeded in winning a majority of the California GOP to his side (at least not right away), but there's at least a decent chance he'd have been able to carry a few more moderate Republicans into the legislature, which would have given him enough leverage to negotiate with the majority Democrats on his own. Under the current situation, Schwarzenegger can do little more than stand quietly off to the side with his stupid budget crisis clock until another conservative in the state Senate cries uncle. The three high-profile moderate Republicans running for governor in 2010 should take note--if they want to have more success than the Governator has, they'll have to be less timid than he's been. (Of course, there's that small matter of actually winning the party's nomination...)

The second point is that the supermajority budget requirement is wreaking havoc on the state, just one more reason why talk of a constitutional convention is gradually picking up steam. But as someone who's offered qualified defenses of supermajority procedural requirements in the past, I feel obligated to point out that the situation is somewhat more complicated than that. A basic assumption underlying a supermajority requirement is that the distribution of political views along an ideological spectrum resembles a bell curve, with plenty of votes in the center. The idea is that you can gain a good deal of stability--preventing policy from shifting wildly back and forth when majority control of the legislature changes--without completely depriving the majority of the power to govern. If you have a normal distribution, the process is simple: you figure out how many votes you need from the minority party, make whatever compromises you need to get them, and your legislation gets passed. The more votes the majority party has, the fewer votes it needs from the minority, and the less it has to give up.

But the distribution of political views in the California legislature isn't normal at all; it's bimodal, with lots of liberal Democrats, lots of conservative Republicans, and almost no centrists. In this situation, a supermajority requirement is a disaster. Unless the majority party gets to the magic number of seats it needs to legislate, it doesn't really matter how many seats it wins, because there aren't any members of the minority party to negotiate with--you have to go all the way to the other end of the political spectrum to find the votes you need. The result is gridlock, and, much like the San Andreas Fault, the stress simply builds until it's no longer sustainable and one side or the other gives in. It's a horrible model for legislating.

And, truth be told, it isn't likely to get better anytime soon. It's sometimes claimed that the reason there are so few centrists in the California legislature is that districts are gerrymandered. Proposition 11, which the voters passed in November, will change that, but the reality is that it's not the districts that are gerrymandered--it's California voters. Even with rationally drawn districts, you won't have many swing seats, because Democrats and Republicans don't live in the same places. You'd have to gerrymander to get competitive districts, drawing a whole bunch of ridiculous-looking districts that begin in inner-city Los Angeles and stretch east into San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.

Given California's political and demographic realities, abolishing the supermajority budget requirement by constitutional convention is probably the state's only realistic option, if it wants to avoid these annual legislative trainwrecks. But let's be clear: that would be treating the symptons, not the underlying disease--which is that California is split between a white, rural, conservative Republican bloc and an urban, largely nonwhite, liberal Democratic bloc that frankly want nothing to do with each other. No such state is ever likely to have a healthy or functional politics, no matter what kind of institutional arrangements one can devise.

--Josh Patashnik