Reform: A California Constitutional Convention?

We've talked before about the need for political reform.  As Repair California puts it, in California "government suffers from drastic dysfunction – our financing system is bankrupt, our prisons overflow, our water system teeters on collapse, our once proud schools are criminally poor, our democracy produces ideologically‐extreme legislators that can pass neither budget nor reforms, and we have no recourse in the system to right these wrongs." Don't tread on me?To take a specific example, a 2/3 majority is required to raise taxes or to pass budgets; this means fiscal policy is in the control of a cadre of minority legislators that the majority of voters is incapable of holding to account. It is tempting to blame the Democrats or the Republicans, the legislature or the governor, or even ourselves, but it isn't anyone's fault. Nothing gets done because nothing can get done. The system is broken.

Californians adopted the current constitutional framework in 1878. The last major reforms took place piecemeal in the 1960s and 70s. Even if the system hadn't ground to a halt, it would be past time for California to examine the way it conducts public business. Running a 21st century state with a patched-up 19th century contraption like the California constitution is like trying to make it through the Cajon Pass in a horse and buggy.

Policy wonks who want to revise the state constitution or write a new one are coming up with ideas beyond getting rid of the 2/3 rule. A unicameral legislature. A parliament. A part-time legislature. Proportional representation. Instant run-offs. Public campaign financing. Some of these suggestions are designed to empower the electorate and increase accountability, some clearly intended to limit democracy (if someone tells you they have a big concern about the risk of a "runaway convention," you are permitted to wonder if they harbor mixed feelings about democracy).

Delegates to a constitutional convention might be appointed, elected, or chosen by lot, or by a formula that involves all three (or Publishers Clearing House could do it: "You may already be a delegate to the California State Constitutional Convention"). Appointment by political leaders and various organized constituencies (the governor, the ledge, good government types like the League of Women Voters, "special interests" like labor, business and minorities, and so on) is pretty obviously a non-starter. At the other end, Stephen Hill, director of the political reform program of the New America Foundation and author of the useful handbook "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy," likes random selection. "This method might sound the strangest," he writes,
but actually may hold the most promise. It has been used in Canada and elsewhere. A scientific sampling of Californians would be randomly selected from the statewide voter list, like a jury pool.

The Bay Area Council, a group of business leaders, has proposed randomly selecting 400 Californians to create a body of average citizens who could bring their common sense and pragmatism to the problems at hand. Those delegates would be paid to participate for eight months, starting with an intensive two-month education process in which they would hear from many experts about the problems and potential solutions for California.

Random selection likely would be the best method for ensuring a truly representative body and for shielding delegates against special-interest influence. And a group made up of "people just like us" brings a sense of grass-roots legitimacy to the process.
A jury pool. Hmmm. My own preference would be to hold elections. The practice is comfortable and familiar and it gives every citizen a chance to participate. It might seem natural to use existing legislative districts as boundaries, but only if you're trying to hold down the number of delegates. (At one informational meeting I attended, someone mentioned that a process in New Orleans to decide how to spend post-Katrina recovery dollars had involved 4,000 citizens; if the Big Easy can engage 4,000 of its people in complicated decisions about capital expenditures, surely California can do better than to rely on 40 -- the size of the state senate, or the assembly's 80 or even the 400 proposed by the Bay Area Council -- of its citizens to make choices that will decide the future direction of the state over the next several generations).

Hill believes that competing in elections will "require significant financial resources, giving an advantage to candidates who have access to money, organized special interests and political party support." But if the number of delegates is increased, the size of each district will be reduced and with it the cost of running, thus reducing in proportion the influence of money. If, for example, the population were to be divided into units of 10,000 then people would be more likely to know personally the representative who is chosen locally and the delegate count would still only amount to about 3,676 individuals, but ones far more accountable than if selected by appointment or randomly (base the calculations on the state's roughly 23,000,000 eligible voters, instead of the number of residents, and you get only 2,300 delegates -- you could hold this party in a cozy little venue like the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and have room to spare).

Admittedly, elections can be unduly influenced by special interests, but I think there is a greater risk of undue influence coming from another quarter: a panel of average citizens, however well vested with pragmatism and common sense, would of necessity be at the mercy of staff. Having witnessed and participated in countless schemes intended to involve citizens in government, I am mightily suspicious of any proceeding that does not give delegates control of their own agenda. Hill says his body of average citizens "would hear from many experts about the problems and potential solutions for California." But who would select these experts? Who would frame the questions? Who would guide deliberations? If experience is any guide, it will be the rope pullers and scene riggers who run the show. If there is a "runaway convention," as likely as not it will be running away from its staff of wranglers.

While it's true that California is in crisis, a rush to create a new constitution -- the organizers of this movement have set a target of 2012 -- could end up being counter-productive. Even should the deadline be met, if the groundwork is insufficiently laid by a full-scale educational campaign and extended debate, and the citizenry invested in the outcome by having participated at every stage, there is no guarantee that the new document will be approved by an electorate that has too often allowed itself to be taken in by anti-government and anti-tax rhetoric. In the meantime, equal energy needs to be expended in pursuit of other remedies, solutions that can be achieved more quickly and more cheaply, and that could make the need for constitutional overhaul less intense (if, for example, by initiative, the property tax rolls are split and the 2/3 rules replaced by the more democratic and more accountable 50%+1).

If you're interested in participating in creating a new California constitution, you better get involved now. Fateful decisions are already being made.
ReformCalifornia.Org (New America Foundation)
RepairCalifornia.Org (Californians for a State Constitutional Convention)
The big constitutional convention question: Who's going to fix California by Steven Hill (Los Angeles Times)
10 Steps to Repair American Democracy by Steven Hill (PoliPointPress).
Californians Want Change After Budget Impasse by Ina Jaffe (All Things Considered - NPR) Listen.

1 comment:

Mike Feinstein said...

John raises some very good questions, which are being seriously grappled with by the people working on the draft ballot language.

For more background on the Citizen Delegate approach, here is a just released summary and full paper, both by Steve Hill:

Related Posts with Thumbnails