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California And The Consequences Of Legislative Gridlock

As legislators in Sacramento work late into the night to pass the budget package agreed to by Governor Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders earlier in the week, it's worth checking out Kevin Drum's spot-on summary of the consequences for the Republican Party of California's supermajority budget requirement. The bottom line is this: Essentially the only way the Republicans could conceivably retake power in the California Legislature in the near future is as a result of a large-scale tax revolt. But because the supermajority requirement prevents Democrats from raising taxes to cover the state budget deficit, as they claim to want to do, there's no chance for such a tax revolt to get off the ground. Hence the irony of a situation in which Republicans have just enough power in Sacramento to preclude the possibility of obtaining more.

But the obvious question to ask next is: why, exactly, would the Republicans want to regain power? What would it enable them to do that they can't already do with their unified minority? The budget that will apparently be passed tonight is a decidedly Republican budget: it closes a $26 billion budget gap without raising taxes.  (Even the last emergency budget agreement, in February, combined tax increases, spending cuts, and borrowing.) Whatever one thinks of the alternatives, there's no question that the cuts the new budget makes will be deep and painful.  If Republicans can call the shots in this manner with only 40 percent of seats, it's hard to see why they need the other 60 percent.

Which, in turn, begs the question, why do the Democrats in California acquiesce? The Republicans, clearly, don't have anywhere near enough votes to pass a budget on their own, and probably not a single Democrat in the legislature actually favors the budget agreement on its merits. So why don't they vote against it?

The answer--and this has implications outside of California's borders--is that they can't. The system, in a way, is rigged against the party that wants government to do things. If the legislature can't agree on a balanced budget, the state effectively comes to a standstill: it can't pay its bills, can't provide social services, can't really do anything (except, of course, issue IOUs). Now, nobody is particularly fond of this situation, but it's far less objectionable to Republicans than it is to Democrats. If you don't want government to do very much, you're not going to be that devastated when fiscal paralysis prevents the state from doing anything. It's sort of like the old saying about mud wrestling with pigs--you should try to avoid it because all that happens is you both get dirty and the pig likes it. To be clear, I'm not trying to compare Republicans to pigs, but you might say something similar about budget negotiations with the GOP: gridlock is inevitable, and Republicans don't really mind that much. As a result, Democrats have almost no leverage in budget negotiations, and everyone knows it.

There are a few implications than flow from this realization. The first is that it would be much better if California (and states in general) were permitted to run deficits. If our traditions of federalism and state sovereignty are to have any place in contemporary American government--as they should, and it's nice to see that these concepts aren't just valued by conservatives anymore--then states have to be able to perform the essential governmental function of countercyclical economic policymaking. If every economic downturn inevitably produces a cascade of recession-reinforcing state budget cuts, pretty soon people are going to wonder why we bother having states in the first place. There are huge hurdles, both political and financial, to enabling states to run deficits, but it's an idea that deserves serious thought.

Then there's the question of what the ongoing mess in California portends for national politics. The situation at the federal level isn't a direct parallel, because, unlike the states, the federal government can run a deficit. As a result, it (thankfully) won't come to an immediate halt if legislators can't agree to bring spending and revenue into equilibrium. But there are some situations in which this structural incongruity between functional dysfunctional government operates at the federal level, too. And in the long run, it still holds true in the budgetary context: if the federal deficit expands to such a level that it calls into question the continued viability of major federal programs, that's going to be more unacceptable to the party that favors active government. Conservatives may be concerned that President Obama's budget strategy--spend now to force tax increases later--is a reverse of the GOP's so-called "starve the beast" strategy, but they needn't worry. The strategy didn't work for Republicans, and the California experience shows why there's even less of a chance it will work for Democrats.

--Josh Patashnik