Dysfunctional. Obstructionist. Petty partisanship.
The descriptions being slapped onto Congress in the wake of the federal government shutdown should be familiar to Californians. They're some of the same labels hung on California lawmakers five years ago, when the state Legislature was gridlocked in the face of financial ruin.
In 2009, months after the Wall Street collapse, the circumstances were extreme and the consequences were dire with a $42 billion deficit that was nearly half the entire state budget. The difference then? Despite ugly politics and narrow choices, California legislators and then-Governor Schwarzenegger made the ideological sacrifices needed to negotiate for what was in the best interest of the state.
Time had almost run out by mid-February of 2009. The bond markets were nearly frozen. The state was days away from being unable to meet its obligations to local governments, school districts and vendors. Wall Street would soon stop loaning California its billions of dollars necessary for day-to-day management of public safety and other key operations.
Senate Republican leader Dave Cogdill and Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines were conservative and anti-tax. Democratic Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and I were liberal and loath to cut programs, especially the safety net for the poor and needy.
Yet after weeks of debate of debate and discussions, together with the governor the four of us concluded there was only one way out. Both sides had to cross over and vote for budget solutions antithetical to our interests and desires.
There was no great kumbaya. The negotiations were exhausting and extremely frustrating. Each side sought a little more of one solution and a little less of the other. Four leaders with different backgrounds and beliefs went from being suspicious of one another to a strange but genuine camaraderie as we pulled the budget deal together.
On February 21, 2009, without a single vote to spare, the legislature mustered the two-thirds vote necessary to raise taxes temporarily and make deep cuts across all areas of state government. California never defaulted on its obligations.
The California budget crisis did not end there of course, but this 2009 accord was an essential beginning. Five years later, after more painful cuts and a voter approved tax increase in 2012, the California budget is balanced. Governor Brown and California are considered one of the comeback stories in the nation.
There was no complete happy ending for the authors. Dave and Mike lost their leadership positions. Karen and I were heavily criticized for the depth and magnitude of the cuts. Though we all can point to aspects of the agreement we wish we had negotiated differently, none of us regrets the overall decisions we had to make.
Our story and the current federal crisis are not identical, but in California, we did our job. We governed. In the current situation, there's no excuse for Republicans to use their unhappiness over the Affordable Care Act, a duly-enacted Congressional statute upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, as the reason to shut down government. The budget stands alone. No doubt Democrats would want to change statutes passed under the Bush era. The multi-trillion dollar federal budget is not a place to seek partisan or tactical advantage over matters unrelated to fiscal solvency.
The work we did in 2009 was painful for those on both sides of the aisle, but critical for California's future. It's time for Congressional Republicans to demonstrate that same resolve by putting good governance ahead of gamesmanship.