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Let the majority rule

California's Legislature needs to change the system that allows bills to be stymied without a floor vote.

November 11, 2010|By Thad Kousser

Triumphant after the passage of Proposition 25, which allows passage of the state budget by a simple majority, Democrats in the California Legislature should celebrate this victory by showing their dedication to the broad philosophy of majority rule, even when it may hurt their narrow interests. They should make the legislative game fair to both parties by eliminating the obscure but important procedures governing the "suspense file," which give legislative leaders the power to kill, without a public vote, bills that a majority of legislators might support.

This reform would give all sides, including the center, a louder voice in state policy. Republicans claim that without a voice in the budget process, as the minority party they will have no power in Sacramento. They have a point. In today's polarized Legislature, most GOP-authored bills are defeated, and often not on their merits and without a public vote. Some of their bills would pass by a simple majority if they were put up for a vote, but instead they are blocked by the suspense file.

What is the mysterious suspense file, and how does it work against majority rule? The ostensible purpose of the file is to take all expensive bills that pass out of policy committees in the state Senate and Assembly, and hold them so that they can be judged together after an assessment of the state's fiscal condition. The state can then live within its means. The theory is fine.

The problem is that in practice, the only bills that get off the suspense file are the ones handpicked by party leaders. The night before the appropriations committees in each house meet to act on the suspense file, party leaders get together to decide which bills get off the file and which die a quiet and hidden death. The bills they kill without a public vote are often the ones that would move policy toward the center, where moderate Democrats and Republicans would ally to form a centrist majority backing the bill. If any members of the committee dare buck the leaders' demands, they can be unceremoniously pulled off the committee.

After retiring from the Legislature in 2000, former Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Johnston explained that the suspense file is used to "parcel out bills based on the policy need to prioritize spending and the political need to reward or punish members without a public vote."

We can fulfill the policy purpose by retaining the file's function of looking at all spending bills together, but eliminate the political machinations by allowing all bills held to come up for a public vote. Although this requires legislators to cast tough votes, sometimes against bills on popular programs, that's exactly the kind of control and accountability that comes along with the power to rule by majority vote.

Because the suspense file is part of the Legislature's internal rules, lawmakers could easily change those rules and open up the process when the new session starts in December. They could ensure that every bill placed on suspense gets a hearing and a public vote, by making a motion to vote on a bill in committees automatic, so that it will live and die on its merits.

If lawmakers fail to act, voters can and should fix the process through a constitutional amendment. Voters in Colorado did it in 1988 with their GAVEL (Give a Vote to Every Legislator) initiative. In the 1980s, conservative Republican leaders in that state held an iron grip through their Rules Committee, which they used like the suspense file to stifle bills that moderate Republicans and the Democratic minority wanted to pass. A coalition of 23 groups, led by the PTA and Common Cause, put GAVEL on the ballot to disband the Rules Committee so that every bill could face an up-or-down vote. This led to more bills shifting policy toward the center in Colorado, and an analysis of roll-call patterns suggests that a similar change in California would have the same effect.

Majority rule is a key part of democratic theory. It should be applied to the budget, to taxes, to fees and to everyday bills. The beauty of majority rule is easy to behold: If elections are a battle of ideas, majority rule is what lets the winner of the battle put these ideas into practice. Now, Democrats in the Legislature need to put the theory that they support more fully into practice.

Thad Kousser is a political scientist at UC San Diego and director of the California Constitutional Reform Project at Stanford's Lane Center for the American West. He is the author of "What Democrats Must Give Up to Restore True Majority Rule to California's Legislature," which appears in the latest issue of the California Journal of Politics and Policy.

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