Sunday, January 3, 2010

No, We're Not All California

Rules matter.  Ezra Klein's WaPo column today warning that the United States is doomed, because of party polarization, to wind up with a California-style budget crisis ignores the rules differences between California's budget process and that of the federal government, and in doing so makes claims that just aren't correct.

The two rules that matter in California are the supermajority legislative requirement for a budget (which Ezra mentions), and the initiative.  Neither is present at the national level: there's no initiative, of course, and anything budget related can and is passed using the majoritarian reconciliation rules. 

In California, initiatives, beginning with Prop 13, have tied the hands of elected officials, leaving only bad choices available even if all legislators are sincerely seeking a good deal.  Basically, any interest group can attempt -- and many have succeeded -- in protecting their piece of the budget from compromise, by writing an initiative that, if passed,  did so.  There is no remotely comparable element to federal budgeting.

Meanwhile, most serious changes in the budget since 1980, and if I recall correctly all initiatives to lower the deficit, have been attempted through reconciliation, and are therefore not subject to the filibuster.  And remember: while polarization means that it's less likely to pass something with bipartisan support, it also means that it's more likely to pass something if all it takes is a majority. 

I do think Ezra has a bit of a point about the debt ceiling, although I don't think he's correct that raising the debt ceiling has always had bipartisan support -- if I recall correctly Republicans voted against raising the debt ceiling when Democrats controlled Congress, even under Republican presidents, although they didn't filibuster it.  Let's see...here's a strict partisan vote in 2006 to raise it, 52-48: the Dems voted no but didn't filibuster.  In 1990 and 1985 the debt ceiling was involved in brinkmanship over deficit reduction, with various people threatening to deny the ceiling increase unless their deficit concerns were met.  So it might be new for the minority party to simply filibuster the debt ceiling, as opposed to either voting no or using their votes to bargain for something substantive.  But, again, the debt ceiling increase can be included in a reconciliation bill, so if the Republicans insist on that strategy the majority has access to a procedure that will prevent a crisis.

Ezra's bigger point is that:
Ever since Newt Gingrich partnered with Bob Dole to retake the Congress atop a successful strategy of relentless and effective obstructionism, Congress has been virtually incapable of doing anything difficult because the minority party will either block it or run against it, or both. And make no mistake: Congress will need to do hard things, and soon.
It's true that something new happened in 1993-1994, and that Republicans now are emulating that cycle.  But it's not at all true that it's unusually hard for Congress to do "anything difficult" now.  It's always been hard for Congress to do difficult things.  Polarization, even with the filibuster, doesn't necessarily make hit harder.  After all, Congress and Bill Clinton did achieve major deficit reduction in 1993, and Congress and Barack Obama have passed an historically huge stimulus this year, and will almost certainly pass a health care bill that eluded decades of previous Congresses.  

Yes, the American system has a bias in favor of the status quo, and in favor of incremental and piecemeal change over radical and systematic reform.  That was true in the partisan 19th century, it was true in the far less partisan 20th century, and it's true now.  As frustrating as that is to those who want change, it doesn't mean that we're about to see California on the national level.

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