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Sherry Bebitch Jeffe Headshot

California-style Supermajority Dysfunction Heads to DC

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This post originally appeared on POLITICO.com

Congratulations, Sen.-elect Scott Brown. Welcome to Sacramento on the Potomac.

Californians have lived through years of government gridlocked by rules that require a supermajority to pass bills in a Legislature ripped by partisanship.

Washington could now mirror the Golden State's breathtaking dysfunction.

Look what California's supermajority rules, coupled with ideological rigidity, have led to. Last year's state budget had to cut roughly 30 percent of the General Fund, slashing health, welfare, education, transit and more. California's once-unparalleled system of "free" higher education had to hike student fees (32 percent at the University of California) and force faculty layoffs. The state's celebrated roadways are ranked second-worst in the nation. Its credit rating tanked.

Brown's vow to block health care reform, as the Senate's 41st Republican, might have rung hollow a half-century ago. Then, the congressional mantra was "to get along, go along." But no more.

When it comes to fierce legislative discord, California, again, led the way. Until 40 years ago, the state government had actually worked -- even with a supermajority requirement. It had to. The California Constitution has required a two-thirds legislative vote to pass a budget since 1933.

But another burden was added in 1978, when Proposition 13 passed, also mandating a two-thirds vote to increase taxes. In that fall's election, a cadre of conservative Republican, anti-tax "Prop. 13 babies" won seats in the state Legislature. This supermajority double whammy was a killer combination.

Even with healthy Democratic majorities in both houses, budget compromise became almost impossible -- no matter if the governor was a Republican or a Democrat.

After the 2001 incumbent-protection reapportionment, lawmakers had even less reason to compromise. Gerrymandered districts meant incumbents were threatened only in the primary. So partisanship hardened. Most Dems hugged the liberal pole -- to cut off challenges from the left. Republicans toed the conservative line -- to block any from the right.

In 2003, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis signed a budget that closed a $38 billion budget gap but left an $8 billion shortfall. In the process, he got shelled by both parties.

The electorate, furious at Sacramento's inaction, rebelled and recalled Davis. Though the state has allowed a recall since 1911, this was a historic first.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took office promising "change" and embraced "post-partisanship" as a way to climb that steep supermajority hill. But legislative Republicans balked -- and legislative Democrats floundered.

So gridlock continues. The Golden State is now teetering on the brink of default. Sure, the economy bears part of the blame for the dismal turn of events, just as the national economic downturn has fired up Congress's debate on government spending.

But blame lies, too, with the politicians who promise what the cumbersome state and national legislative processes can't deliver -- change without compromise.

Last year, California, for the first time in its history, had to issue IOUs because budget negotiations were deadlocked for nearly a month into the new fiscal year.

When a compromise was reached, the conservative GOP legislative leaders who had helped forge it were dumped by their caucuses. The new leaders have gotten the message -- and are unlikely to stray from their followers.

But these followers are ever angrier, frustrated by government's lack of responsiveness and accountability. That's the case nationally, too.

Consider Massachusetts. A post-election survey by The Washington Post showed Brown's win was "fueled by frustration with Washington" and "the most frequently cited reasons were concerns about the process, including closed-door dealing."

Even Schwarzenegger lambasted the "sweetheart deal Sen. [Ben] Nelson of Nebraska got" for his support for health care. But in the real world of politics, the need to address a supermajority requires wheeling and dealing. Just ask Schwarzenegger.

To secure the decisive vote needed to pass the California budget last year, Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislative leaders turned to Sen. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Republican who sometimes crosses party lines. He negotiated stipulations before he would sign on -- and he got them.

To be sure, California's supermajority gridlock is not a certain path for Capitol Hill. But Washington should keep in mind that what happens in California seldom stays in California.

Over the years, Californians have learned that when the legislative minority constantly uses the supermajority rule to block action, the resulting gridlock makes it impossible for anyone to really govern. And public anger grows.

In a system where voters can't hold anyone accountable, they hold everybody accountable.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior fellow at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California.