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The Consent of the Governed

“… to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men [and women], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” -- Declaration of Independence

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“Your people, Mr. Jefferson, are a great beast." So said Alexander Hamilton, the leader of America’s first conservative party, to the author of the Declaration of Independence and the leader of America’s first liberal party. In 1776, the consent of the governed, as determined by “one person, one vote” was the most radical and subversive political agenda anybody could have imagined. It still is. In early America, the difference between America’s two parties centered on which one would embrace this radical notion, and which realized the greater wisdom of leaving it to the “best people” to govern the nation. It still does.

As you read this, the leaders of the party that consistently gets the most votes in this state are working on qualifying a ballot initiative that will restore this radical governing concept to California’s budget process. And the party that consistently fails to earn the consent of the governed, yet gets complete control under the two-thirds vote requirement to block any budget that gives them things only 99% their way can be expected to respond with their typical talking points: a simple majority to pass a budget is a conspiracy to facilitate overspending, and that a simple majority to raise taxes is a conspiracy to take your money. It can be further expected that the real Hamiltonian agenda behind their opposition will not lend itself as well to sound bites and 30-second spots, and the proposal will be voted down handily, as it was in 2004.

Now it is true that things have gotten much worse in the five years since, and that the Republican agenda of using the two-thirds vote requirement as a tool for enacting that which they cannot win at the polls has become readily apparent to an increasing number of people. But those who cite these facts as a reason to be confident for a reversal of the 2-to-1 margin Prop 56 lost by in 2004, are simply being hopelessly naïve. On the other side of the reform movement, we have those who cite this margin as a reason to throw up our hands and either give up entirely, or to limit our efforts to removing the two-thirds requirement for budget passage, but not for taxes, which of course is now the main problem.

Fortunately, there is a third option, a way that we can reform the budget process to reinstate majority rule in a manner that can win voter approval next June. Under my proposal, the majority party can and will pass their budget not with the support of other legislators- not a simple majority, not two thirds, not 55%. They will do it with a simple majority of Mr. Jefferson’s great beast -- We, The People.

Now relax. I know what you’re going to say. Progressives have found frustration with direct democracy in the Golden State so many times in recent years (Props 187, 209, and most recently 8, to name a few examples), along with the aforementioned capacity of the right to take complex issues and break them down into winning sound bites for television campaigns, that a reliance on it here naturally gives them pause.

Whether its their passion for the liberal side on these social issues or simply that they’ve listened to the corporate media’s constant blathering about what a terribly conservative electorate we have in this “center-right” nation, a few facts that the media, with all its “liberal bias”, does not care to dwell on should give us a better indication of just how conservative the electorate is when it comes to this issue.

Recall that on the same ballot where the voters defeated the simple majority initiative, they approved Schwarzenegger’s plan to avoid reversing the 1998 tax cuts (which, of course, passed with a simple majority) by simply borrowing an additional $15 billion from the bond market. Afterwards, he could brag about the ringing endorsement the public had given for this plan. Or had they?

Recall that the public, in this case, as with all ballot initiatives, had only two choices: yes or no to the plan being offered by their governor. But one of my all time favorite polling statistics was the one from the LA Times (not published on the front page, of course) that indicated how the public would feel about a temporary tax increase on the top one percent that would raise the same $15 Billion without paying more than twice that amount in interest over the next thirty years. 72% preferred that approach to the governor’s, but of course that was never one of their options.

Recall, the very next year, the governor’s “live within our means” initiative. While he almost succeeded with some of his special election’s other schemes, it became apparent very early on that that one was dead on arrival, the moment the public read the summary that spelled out exactly what the cuts would be to education and public safety. Interesting how voters, who “prove” their conservatism with their responses to tax cut proposals, seem decidedly less conservative when what they’re voting on are the things that go along with those tax cuts.

The initiative process, in general, always has that flaw of treating the electorate like children in the questions it presents them, and the options it leaves them with. That’s certainly how Schwarzenegger’s borrowing proposal treated them on the question of how we were going to come up with the $15 billion. But at least the governor deserves credit for treating them like adults on the question of whether or not that was money that we needed and simply was not there. The same could not be said of our campaign to restore majority rule on that same ballot. Treating the electorate like children, from whom we had to keep secret our desire to enact a tax plan that 72% of them approved of, and apparently oblivious to the thought that the opposition might paint the initiative as a scheme to raise everybody’s taxes (gee, who’s ever known the Republicans to make that argument!), we chose to refer to it as “budget accountability” designed to stop legislators from bickering and (as shown in the commercial) throwing paper at each other on the Assembly floor. We deserved to lose.

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The best example in modern California politics in which voters have consistently shown their willingness to pay taxes when the politicians asking for them do so in a straightforward and transparent manner can be seen in the public’s recent willingness to pass local school bonds. Even before the threshold for passing them was lowered to 55% (and the willingness of the voters to approve that says something as well) voters frequently mustered the two-thirds supermajority amongst themselves that they could not muster among their representatives. I was very proud last year to see LBCC’s bond that my colleagues and I put on the ballot approved by a margin large enough that it would have passed under the old 2/3 requirement.

The message of all this is clear. The level of mistrust the voters have for politicians is great enough that they are unlikely ever to approve giving them the ability to raise taxes on their own, but they will accept taxes that are imposed with their consent. Local school boards obtain this consent by being open with the public that they are requesting more of their money, and offering independent data to show exactly how their proposal will affect property tax levels and how the money is going to be used. There’s no reason Sacramento cannot do the same.

Here’s how a ballot initiative to restore majority rule could do that: First, you require that the legislative analyst, or some other nonpartisan source, make the determination that there is a budget shortfall before a simple majority is authorized to do anything on taxes. This determination would also have to say the exact amount the shortfall would be, assuming that the level of spending stays consistent with the past several fiscal years. On the issue of passing budgets, separate from the tax provisions, our initiative could placate the opposition (not to mention taking away their spears) by requiring that any budget that increases spending will still require a 2/3 vote.

Now relax. I know what you’re going to say. Without proper safeguards, this could give the Republicans a legal basis to force massive cuts, without calling them cuts. Recall, among other things, how their Medicare cut was not really a “cut” but “slowing the growth” of Medicare. The language of our initiative would have to be careful to define “increase” in a manner that accounts for rising costs, be they caused by population growth, inflation, or whatever else Republicans conveniently fail to account for whenever they compare the spending on a program to what we spent on it back when Henry Ford sold his cars for under $500 and his workers were considered overpaid at $5 a day.

Once the legislative analyst has made the determination what level of spending is required to maintain the same level of service, a budget that spent more than that amount would require 2/3, and any discrepancy between that amount and the present amount of revenue would be what a simple majority would be authorized to place before the voters on the next statewide ballot.

Yes, the legislature already holds the power to place such proposals before the public, but the aforementioned limitations of the “yes or no” options make it impossible for the process to work with any of the transparency of the system used with school bonds, which is why those proposals fail. So here’s where our initiative would step in with the following amendment to the state constitution- provide that when the legislature places such a tax proposal on the ballot, the options are not just to approve it or reject it. The voters’ ballot states the amount of the shortfall, and then he or she votes on which of two options will be used to close it: the tax plan adopted by simple majority in the legislature, or an across the board spending cut.

Of course, our initiative could simply amend the constitution to say that a “no” vote in this circumstance automatically triggers that cut, but that wouldn’t guarantee that the public knows exactly what they are voting to do. Not only would our initiative have to require that they vote FOR the cut rather than just against the tax, it would require that the ballot prominently show just how much is going to be cut from things like schools and public safety. We have seen how voters vote when their ballot tells them the truth like this, and right wingers will naturally go crazy over this. But what’s their argument going to be? “That’s unfair! It’ll make it harder for us to win by deceiving the people about the agenda we’re asking them to vote for!!!”? Good luck with that one!

Furthermore, nothing would stop those who feel they have a better plan from using the present initiative system to place their own proposals (cuts to specific programs, a less regressive tax plan, etc) and if one of them passes and gets more votes than the winning side of the original question, then that plan is the one enacted. The language of our initiative should clarify that this will still be allowed, and even encouraged. The beauty of this new system would not just be that voters would have a real choice for the first time, but that they could vote for what they really want without any fear of one option being the “spoiler” dividing votes with another. People can vote for as many options as they find acceptable, and the one that gets the most votes is enacted. The only thing that will not be an option is to do nothing, the plan that is regularly adopted by default under the present system.

What are we waiting for? We can restore majority rule in California, but only if we keep it within the context of the consent of the governed. Progressives have nothing to fear from this concept. The right wingers who are used to getting their way through the two-thirds requirement most certainly do.

And the only way they can oppose us if we go this route is to show their true colors and reassert their Federalist Party belief that the consent of the governed is a dangerous concept and that “those who own the country ought to govern it”. It is time for progressives to force the right to be open in their defense of Hamilton’s legacy. They lost that battle a long time ago, and it will be a joy to watch them lose it again. To the barricades!


Mark Bowen
Long Beach Community College District Board