Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The Republican Guarantee

Article IV, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution states "The United States shall guarantee to every State in the Union a Republican Form of Goverment."   A comment by USWest about "too much democracy" in California (more in a minute)  leads me to make a post about the varying extent of democracy in our "republican" forms of government.   Until Baker v.  Carr  (1962), states often had senates based on counties or divisions of states that had unequal populations.  That watershed case ruled that "one man, one vote" had to be the rule for both houses of state legislatures.   Before then, it was heavily rural-dominated.  The joke was "one cow, one vote."  And the political process was 100% blocked.  Earl Warren said it was his the decision he (as a former governor) was proudest of.
 
The same rule is, however, is barred at the federal level by Article V stating that "no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the senate."  That is the only provision of the US constitution requiring a unanimous vote of states for amendment.  In the Senate, a Wyoming resident has 60 times the voting power of a California resident.  It has been rightly said that the U.S. Senate is the least democratic body in the western world, excepting the House of Lords.
 
Even today, however, democracy among the states varies substantially.  In California, I propose there is too little democracy, not too much.  Specifically, California has 80 assembly members in our largest house -- making assembly districts approximately 375,000 people.   In New Hampshire, by contrast, that number is 5,000.   Montana is 10,000.  Imagine how California democracy would be different if representation of the people were so much more direct!  California also has enormous counties, the largest in the country.   The members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors each represent more than 2 million people.  That is a larger district than even the U.S. Congress (650,000 per district as of 2000).   
 
The separation of powers also differs.  In California and New York, the legislatures meet almost full time, and contend (as does the U.S. Congress) on equal footing with the executive branch.  In many other states, it is different.  In Kentucky, for example, the legislature meets for 60 days every other year.  For the rest of the time, the governor has unfettered discretion. 

19 comments:

Raised By Republicans said...

An increase in the number of disticts in California's Assembly would be an improvement. I suspect that if that happened, most of the new assembly seats would be in and near the metropolitian areas of L.A./Orange County/Riverside County and San Francisco/San Jose/Oakland. That would probably translate into an even bigger Democratic majority in the Assembly than already exists. I wouldn't have a problem with that, but I bet a lot of people in Fresno and Modesto would.

The two biggest problems in California though aren't with the district size. The biggest problem is the 2/3 majority requirement for any budget. The result is that even though the Democrats have the majority in both houses of the CA Assembly, Republican minorities are able to prevent passage of a budget. The result is that CA budgets put off difficult choices and generally get passed very late.

The second big problem in CA is the dominance of referenda. The 2/3 majority issue is the result of a referendum that was passed after a slick ad campaign selling the measure as a fiscal responsibility measure. The infamous Prop 13, which effectively destroyed municiple and county government in CA, passed under similar circumstances. New local taxes require a 2/3 vote from the general populace.

I would argue that the average voter is perfectly capable of knowing whether they want higher or lower taxes, services or debt. However, they don't have the expertise, or the time to acquire it, to effectively determine the best policy to enact in order to achieve those goals. Best to leave the details to professional (or in Kentucky's case, semi-professional) representatives.

Nick said...

Nicely put....well thought out! Thanx. Nick.

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR- More representatives should not really change the balance of the legislature, except insofar as it might increase or decrease the gerrymandering possibilities.

Raised By Republicans said...

The only way adding districts wouldn't change the ballance would be if population growth in California has been the same among Republican voters and among Democratic voters. Of course gerrymandering would have an effect but I suspect that the current number of seats reflects an older California population that was more Republican than the one today.

US West said...

I agree that the Assembly in the state of California could stand to grow. When I made the statement in my comment about "too" much democracy, I was thinking mostly of the referenda among other things, which I will get to in a minute.

In response to LTG's comments about the over-representation of Wyoming in the Senate: sure, I agree. But this is why we have a bicameral legislature. I remind you that before we amended the Constitution, Senators were chosen by state legislatures. No more. And that is a good thing. The reason we have a body like the Senate is to check the House. The whole system was set up to accomplish two things. 1. To make sure minority voice gets protected by balancing small vs. large. 2. Prevent the tyranny of the majority, in other words, to protect the masses from themselves.

The founding Fathers had faith in a benevolent elite ( as did we until the late 1960’s) who had education, a social conscious, and a desire to serve. This was part of the social contract. You can be rich and powerful, but you have to give some of it back. And this has done well for us. Much of what we have in this country was built by elites with means and a sense of civil service-I point to my public library as an example. Granted, there was corruption and abuse, but government stepped in, on behalf of the people, to correct that, limit it, stop it. In effect the elite corrected itself using government for the good of the people. No more because no one is allowed to really govern anymore and a sense of entitlement has entered the system. And, as we have said in other postings, the whole regulatory system is gone and nothing was created to replace it. So the vacuum has to be filled with something. If you start doing away with inherent parts of our system (i.e. the EC), this is what happens. But that is for another day. Besides, I am starting to sound too republican (small ‘r’), which frightens me. My point is the Senate was made to be undemocratic for a reason- a reason is just as relevant today as before. The electoral collage was made to be undemocratic for a reason. And that is just as relevant as before.

Now, as for California, what RBR failed to mention is that the California legislature only controls about 15% of the state budget, which is why it is so contentious. The rest is already allocated thanks to referenda that have been passed by voters over the years. So when you can only play with 15% of the budget, making budget cuts doesn't do much to help solve California's current crisis. (I see this in my daily life when I pay the bills every month.) And when you have cuts, the people get mad, they try to protect their pet programs using special interest groups to put new initiatives on the ballot to allocate more of the general fund, which the voters vote on, and the cycle keeps on spinning. Here's the thing about human nature: Most people vote with their hearts, not their heads. A vast majority do not stop to consider the ramifications. They are too busy, too aloof, too unaware of the issues and too manipulated by the propaganda that infiltrates them daily. And this same thing is now happening to our "professional" legislators.

This leads me to my larger point about "Too much democracy". If you want you voice heard, fill out a poll. There are millions of them. And representatives, in an attempt to be responsive to their constituents, read these things closely. They hire people to poll, more people to judge the intensity of opinions on the things they polled about, and then they act. All committee meetings are open to the public now thanks to sunshine laws. I tend to think this is a good thing. But it has an effect on the professionalism of law makers because now everything is political, and all the stakes are high. Lawmakers can't reflect and consider anything because the moment they do, the 300 special interest groups sitting in the chamber flood their (legislators’) offices with various media for their cause. Everything, then, becomes political. This is why we DON”T allow cameras in the Supreme Court.

Add to this the 24 hour news cycle and a media that takes all its cues from taking points issued by the White House Communications office, and you have a real popular, modern democracy at work, don't you? This is why the 9/11 commission is so special in that it has managed to remain public without being too compromised. I am beginning to think that there are some things that need to be handled behind closed doors, without the glare of the TV lights. But that means we have to have a certain amount of trust in our legislators and we don't- often for good reason (see above).

My point is that while everyone should get to vote in a fair election, not everyone needs to have a say on every thing that comes down the pike. I manage 7 people. And I swear, if I sat around letting them all have their say, nothing would get accomplished. I am no longer a fan of referenda for that reason. I concur with RBR on this. And I am not sure changing the electoral system is the answer, at least not the complete answer because it isn't the root of the problem. Tinkering and experiment, hoping that will help, may only worsen the problem, which is what we have spent the last 30 years doing.

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR is still incorrect about the composition of the legislature. The CA assembly districts are (as are all state legislative districts) regularly redrawn on the basis of equal population. These were redrawn most recently in 2000. So, for example, dividing each district in half or in thirds would be unlikely to change the makeup of the assembly at all.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I would not be so sanguine about the direct election of senators. The massive growth of the federal budget and taxation dates not so much from the New Deal as Woodrow Wilson in 1913, as soon as senators were directly elected. The correlation is not perfect, but there is an underlying logic. Before 1913, state governments had direct representation in Washington, D.C. Now they have none. So, for example, we get unfunded mandates, which state-legislature-appointed senators would never have approved.

By the way, a bicameral legislature has many benefits, but it need not be so wacked out in terms of representation. Bicameral legislatures ensure that we get two sets of heads thinking about each problem, often in very different political environments. EVERY US state (except Nebraska) has a bicameral legislature, but BOTH houses are chosen from districts with equal-sized districts. For example, New Hampshire has 500 members of the lower house and 30 members of the upper house. The houses function differently and the benefits of bicameralism are maintained. Even the UK maintains the House of Lords, because (although it can only delay legislation, not prevent it) the input of the Lords' committees is often quite helpful in the deliberative process.

US West said...

Interesting. I had not thought about budget correlation and the change in voting for Senators. It would be cool to follow that up.

It seems we are talking about 2 things in this discussion: the state legislatures on one hand and the US Congress on the other.

So let me get this straight, LTG seems to have two objections: The first is that the state assembly in California is really too small to be effective since the state's population has grown, thus, we should have more districts resulting in more state reps and senators. I can agree to that.

The second objection is that small states seem to have too much say in the US senate.

Am I understanding correctly, LTG? I think this is an interesting discussion. I always considered that the bicameral legislature in the Federal system was meant to create inequality on purpose. This is how we got the small states to ratify the Constitution. One house would be apportioned by population in the state, the other by a mandated 2 Senators. So what other way should we consider for apportioning the US Senate? And does LTG think that rescinding the popular vote of Senators would solve some of our democratic woes?

US West said...

One additional thought: I realize that LTG is limiting the discussion to the actual system of elections and representations, as the title of his post suggests. Thus, there is a lot of discussion here about the ratio of people to representative. And that is an important consideration.

I see that, however, as only one aspect of the democratic system. And I think what we are seeing is a shift in the American mindset from relying on legislatures and on government to relying on the self, or on a group of like-minded individuals, to accomplish things. This shift probably started in the late 1960's, early 1970's. And it is an ingrained part of the American psyche. So while the ratio of representees to representative might be "wacked" , to use LTG's term, I don't see that as a major problem since we still have the ability and the mechanisms to circumvent government or to at least make it respond. I point, once again to the 9/11 commission which happened because 9/11 families pushed.

The danger here, however, is that government so fails us, that everything is handled by individuals. Then you risk the "privatization" of public goods and isolation of the less powerful. And we see this in gated communities, outsourcing government functions to private contractors (who aren't accoutable for what they do) and decreased interest in taking up civic duties (like jury duty or voting). One response to counter this trend would be, as LTG points out, to fix the "wacked" representation model we now have.

Raised By Republicans said...

LTG, you say I'm incorrect to assert that the current CA assembly reflects the CA of 30 years ago. I suggested that increasing the number seats would probably increase the representation of Democrats. You said that was wrong too. But in explaining why I was incorrect you reversed your complaint about the Assembly. If the increasing the size of the Assembly won't change its partisan composition substantially, why bother increasing the size? Why is the number of seats - in of itself - an important thing? I'm not giving up my argument that increasing seats would decrease small town and rural representation (Republicans lose more here) and increase suburban and urban representation (edge to the Democrats in these areas).

US West, you talk about the privatization of public goods. That is a growing area of research in administrative politics and law. Researchers are increasing concerned with how elected representatives can hold private companies accountable when they perform what used to be government functions. The "independent contractors" in Iraq are the most visible example now but the phenomenon occurs in every policy area.

US West said...

I just finished listening to a speech given at a conference on inequality by Bill Moyers. He made a powerful presentation about the growing economic and social inequality. (http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0616-09.htm for a transcript.)

He addresses this very issue of privatization, pointing to is as part of a larger conservative agenda- the one where rather than redistribution the wealth downstream, you pass it along upstream.

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR- The reason for increasing the size of the legislature is to decrease the size of districts. Politics in a 50,000 person district are fundamentally different than in a 500,000 person district, because the former can be won by door-to-door retail politicking, while the latter requires Big Money and television time. A smaller district means a rep who is more responsive to very local concerns (e.g., we need a stop sign here). Many states have this level of local representation, but some (like CA) don't

The Law Talking Guy said...

US West is correct that in a vibrant democracy such as ours, the public will often find a way to motivate government even when formal channels are blocked (e.g., the 9/11 commission being foisted upon the Republicans who didn't want it, and through control of both houses could avoid it). However, this is a safety valve at best, and one should not design a system to regularly use its safety valves.

I think the experience of states demonstrates that representing different constituencies is an advantage of bicameralism, but not necessary. The main advantage of a smaller upper house with longer terms is to have a body with more deliberative ability, and a greater ability to make deals, without losing the benefits of mass representation in a larger lower chamber. The Senate could, for example, have one senator for some states and up to three for others. That wouldn't increase the total number much, but would alleviate the massive overrepresentation of some states. The Canadian senate is chosen on this basis, and Canada seems to function fine.

Raised By Republicans said...

LTG,

I would suggest that if the state assembly is responsible for things like stop signs and potholes (might be the case in CA), you've got bigger problems than district size. A friend of mine recently moved from California to Ohio. He was shocked to find out that Ohio has about 90 counties compared to 65 or so for CA. He was also surprised to find out how much it mattered who is his County supervisors in Ohio were.

That said, I can see how a change in district size would change the kinds of issues that get represented. For example the US House is generally more likely to have anti-trade members than the Senate because of district size. See, while localized interests may be hurt by trade, once you start talking about entire state populations trade is good for the majority of voters. Of course this goes both ways so the House is generally more polarized than the Senate.

With regard to CA: Would reducing district size increase polarization? What new issues would get pushed to the fore by smaller districts? And I still think that it would take a miracle for the Republicans to decrease district size in CA without reducing their share of representation in the Assembly.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I disagree with your trade analysis. Trade hurts certain voters and helps others. In the rural-dominated Senate, "free trade" will find more friends because low tariffs usually help rural interests. This has been a cleavage in US politics since before the Civil War. We will see that alter as US policies on agriculture come under scrutiny.

It is not true that in larger polities the majority will "see the wisdom" of free trade as you describe it. A Senate with 100 members chosen by districts of equal population would likely have the same "free trade" vs. "fair trade" split as the larger 435-member house. You should be careful of a theological commitment to free trade.

The main difference is that, with 6-year terms, Senators are much safer from short-term economic trends than 2-year house members. Thus, a Senator can favor policies that hurt his constituents so long as, 4 or 5 years later, they've either forgotten or got new jobs.

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