Home > Applying Political Science, California Politics > A Response to George Skelton

A Response to George Skelton

So this response is a day late (and maybe a dollar short). Yesterday, one of the deans of the California politics press, George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times, published a column lauding the recent California legislative session as a turning point. He wrote, “It’s a new era in Sacramento — a markedly improved one, so far. Watching the lawmakers, you don’t cringe nearly as much. They’re actually getting things done in the state Capitol. You can set aside that old label ‘dysfunctional.'”

Skelton argues that the legislature’s new found functionality comes from three recent reforms approved by voters:

  • Term limit reform (Prop. 28, 2012), which he argues allows legislators to develop a sense of stability
  • The top-two primary (Prop. 14, 2010), which he argues makes it easier to elect new blood into the legislature
  • The work of the California Citizen’s Redistricting Commission in drawing legislative district (Prop. 20, 2010), which he argues reduced the degree of strident partisanship in the legislature

While, admittedly, I don’t live and breath Sacramento politics the way that Mr. Skelton does, my response is, “No, no, and no!”

The study of Congress has taught us that there are two primary causes of legislative gridlock: (1) ideological differences between the two chambers of the legislature and (2) divided government. The greater the ideological distance between the two chambers (see Congress right now, where Republicans control the House and Democrats control the Senate) the greater the degree of legislative gridlock. If the legislature and the executive are controlled by different parties (see President Obama (D) versus the House Republicans), then we can expect still more legislative gridlock. Some would add a third cause: The number of seats that the majority party holds relative to those held by the minor party. The bigger the difference in the number of seats held by the two parties, the less gridlock we should see.

If we look at the California legislature following the 2012 elections, what do we see? We see both chambers dominated by Democrats, which minimizes degree to which there will be significant ideological differences between the two chambers. Moreover, Democrats have a 2/3 voting majority in both chambers, which means they have a huge seat margin relative to the Republicans. In an era of simple majority budgeting (Prop. 25, 2010) the Democrats don’t have to worry about negotiating with recalcitrant Republicans. They don’t even need to worry about Democratic defections on most votes. At the same time, we also see that Democrats control both the Governor’s office and the legislature, which minimizes the likelihood of significant conflict between the two branches of government (especially in an age of hyper-partisanship).

I personally would add in the fact that the state’s fiscal situation has improved sufficiently that legislators no longer feel that they have to protect their preferred policies and programs from budget cuts, which makes everyone feel better in the abstract. (The literature on Congress, however, doesn’t suggest this is important in determining the level of gridlock.)

So what, then, do I think has led to the improved situation in Sacramento? The fact that the Democrats now control all the levers of power. (And, by the way, I would expect similar stories of a miraculous change in the culture of Sacramento if Republicans somehow magically controlled all the levers too.) The institutional reforms enacted by California voters may yet create a change in the Capitol’s culture and behavior, but I don’t think they have done so yet.

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