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GOP Should Give Democrats Enough Rope to Hang Themselves on the Budget

May 02, 2003|Thomas L. Krannawitter

California has a spending problem. Over the last four years, inflation and population combined grew at a rate of 21%; revenue grew slightly faster, at 25%. Yet California government spending grew 40%. The result is what you would expect: an unprecedented budget shortfall that may exceed $35 billion.

California Republicans cannot agree on a solution, but most are united in their opposition to a proposed initiative that would appear on the March ballot next year lowering the requirement to pass the state budget from two-thirds to 55% of the Legislature.

Republicans -- who are in the minority in both houses -- cling to the two-thirds rule for an obvious reason: It requires Democrats to seek their votes, allowing the GOP to keep what little leverage it has.

But Republicans are making a mistake. They don't seem to understand that the two-thirds budget rule is a legacy of Progressivism, the political movement that provided the foundation for modern liberalism.

At the heart of that liberalism has been the attempt to minimize the influence of political parties and, indeed, politics itself, replacing constitutional government with a government by appointed boards of experts and regulatory agencies.

Progressive political loyalty finds its home in the bureaucracy, not political parties. Parties, it is believed, are partisan and divisive -- obstacles to "progress."

One of the key Progressive "reforms" implemented in the California Constitution was the two-thirds requirement to pass the state budget, passed in the midst of the Great Depression. Progressive architects wanted to alter the California Constitution so that the budget would necessarily be "bipartisan." But in practice, this means neither Democrats nor Republicans are wholly responsible or accountable for deciding what government will do and how much money it will spend doing it.

Democrats are growing impatient. They want complete control of the budget process now, without the need to compromise with Republicans, which explains their plan to ease the two-thirds requirement. Republicans should let them have it. Republicans should stop squawking and study some of the advice offered in that masterpiece of political science, the Federalist Papers. There, they would learn of the importance of responsibility and accountability -- that those in control of government should be granted the power they need to accomplish their constitutional duties but also be held strictly accountable for their actions.

The California Constitution stands as a grand experiment in Progressivism. From the initiative process to the recall and referendum to the nonpartisan elected offices and judges -- to the two-thirds requirement to pass the budget -- the California Constitution perhaps goes further than any other state constitution in weakening elected officials, removing political accountability and driving out partisanship from state government and state politics.

In their place, the Progressive design of the California Constitution has encouraged the creation of a massive corps of bureaucratic "experts." If in doubt, consider the plight of someone wanting to build a home or start a business: It is much more important to know the folks on the local zoning board than members of the Legislature.

The solution to California's budget problems will not be found in Progressive policies like the two-thirds budget rule, wherein Democrats throw table scraps to Republicans. Rather, the solution must be emphatically political and partisan. Let Democrats pass a budget, and then let Republicans hammer at the way they spend our money.

If Republicans can show how liberal policies have caused the real harm we are suffering today, and explain what limited, constitutional government in California would look like, this could be the Republican recipe for winning elections up and down the state. All they need are the intelligence and political will to do it.

Thomas L. Krannawitter is vice president of the Claremont Institute.

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