California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger rode a wave of national publicity early this year by announcing that he would lead America into a new era of “post-partisanship.” His rhetoric was a refreshing change to the bickering between President Bush and congressional Democrats. Federal gridlock has spurred calls for greater comity and compromise between the parties. But to solve the problems we face today, we need structural changes to encourage disagreement by partisans, not diminish it, so long as dissent is principled and accompanied by greater competition in elections.
Schwarzenegger’s feel-good idea of post-partisanship is now crumbling as Republicans in the California legislature are blocking passage of a budget that was supposed to be passed by July 1. California law requires the budget to receive two-thirds support, giving the minority party has unusual leverage.
Like Schwarzenegger, President Bush is having a hard time getting his own party to agree with deals that he has negotiated with Democratic leaders in Congress around immigration reform. Bush, who worked constructively with a Democratic legislature while governor or Texas, has been unable to break the legislative gridlock and get any major proposal through. One major obstacle is the longstanding practice of the Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes to bring any issue to a clean vote on the Senate floor. This means that just 40 Senators, who may represent even less than 40 percent of all Americans, can block virtually any idea.
Partisan gridlock leaves most of us frustrated with politicians who seem unable to work together to get anything done. But the solution is not to end disagreement but rather to provide meaningful ways for elected officials to take their dispute to the ballot box rather than grinding our representative branch of government to a halt.
When a group of partisans strongly objects to what the majority party is doing, the proper course is to take those grievances to the voters in the next election. If the party is persuasive, they should sweep out the majority and then be in a position to do things differently. This, for instance, is what Thomas Jefferson did when he organized a political party to sweep out John Adams and his federalist allies in the election of 1800.
But in America today, it is too difficult for a minority party to unseat the majority. Even in “landslide” elections where control of Congress changes hands, it is only a handful of districts that switch from one party to the other. In 1994, Republicans gained control of Congress by winning 54 seats in the House, a change of only twelve percent. In 2006, Democrats took control back by taking 31 seats in the House from the Republicans, a shift of seven percent. In neither instance, did the majority party win enough seats to overcome filibusters by the minority party in the U.S. Senate.
Rules that artificially enhance the power of legislative minorities, such as the Senate filibuster and California’s two-thirds requirement on budget issues are intended to foster a spirit of bi-partisanship. To get anything done, both parties must work together. But the system fails when one party refuses to compromise and obstructs instead of recording their principled opposition while letting the majority rule.
When legislatures gridlock, it is difficult to hold either party accountable. The minority cannot campaign against the terrible things that the majority has done if in fact they have prevented the majority from doing anything.
It’s time for a package of offsetting reforms that would make it easier for majorities to get things done in the legislature but also make it easier to unseat the majority party in the next election. Enacting legislation and budgets by simple majority would make it easier to hold the party in power accountable. Reducing the campaign fundraising disparity between challengers and incumbents would make it easier to unseat the majority party, as would reforming the way political districts are drawn to heavily favor the election of one party or the other. Majority partisans are always reluctant to open up the electoral system to greater competition, but if these reforms were paired with changes in the legislative process that let the majority actually govern it might be something that all parties could support.
#-#-#Derek Cressman is a senior fellow at The Poplar Institute, a think tank that studies government accountability, and author of The Recall’s Broken Promise—How Big Money Still Runs California Politics.