Monday, May 9, 2011


My wife and I just finished up two-and-a half months in California and are now back in Israel. While in California I watched the budget fights in the California Legislature and in Congress. For 30 years I was part of the California budget and policy fights as a lobbyist representing various private and public entities whose vitality or survival depended on the outcomes.

It was an intense, stressful occupation if one truly cared about the clients’ interests. In later years, it became a much less pleasant, civil, and straightforward process. Now being strictly an observer, albeit a very interested one, I have had time to think and analyze a bit. It has gotten me to thinking about which legislative body, Israel or California's, functions worse, and why. Both have been criticized for being dysfunctional and sometimes corrupt.
One distinction between Israel and the California legislative bodies I have come up with is based on whether the government functions as designed. The Israeli Knesset, or parliament, was designed just the way it operates. It provides for proportionate representation. Parties put up a slate of candidates. Voters vote for the party. The number of candidates on the slate that get a Knesset seat reflects the number of votes the slate received as a percentage of the entire vote.

It is entirely predictable that this system would produce any number of small parties that could hold anywhere from two to five to 10 seats that could play a crucial role in helping a larger party form a majority government. Thus, it is easy to see how one or two small parties representing narrow interests could have a disproportionate say in a governing coalition, which is exactly the reality.

Although I am sure the founders characterized their objectives as ensuring every group had representation and a voice in government, a less polite description of the system might be as one that allows small, selfish parties to blackmail power hungry leaders for whom ruling is more important than principles.

Fed up with this system a number of years ago, reformers managed to separate the vote for prime minister from the proportional representation vote for the Knesset. In other words, rather than the leader of the top vote-getting party who managed to put a coalition together becoming prime minister, the prime minister would be elected by a majority vote of the people while the rest of the Knesset would be elected in the traditional manner.

The thinking was that this reform would cause people to coalesce around the prime minister candidates of the two or three larger parties with a real likelihood of winning the popular vote for prime minister, and that they would also vote for that party for the Knesset. Well, talk about good intentions gone astray.

Allowed to vote “responsibly” for the office they felt really counted, the prime minister‘s position, voters then felt free to indulge their passions and pet projects by voting for any number of parties with narrow, sometimes nutty, interests. The result was even more rather than less splintering of the vote. The reform was abandoned after one or two elections and Israelis are back to complaining about the traditional system.

In contrast to the ill-designed Israeli system that functions in a fairly predictable manner, the U.S. system, and the California system that is based on it, are ingeniously designed to produce a noble objective, and while the process is often messy and unattractive, they generally did so for many years. Checks and balances, independent judiciary, protection of minority viewpoints and minorities, individual rights, due process, and on and on. It didn’t always, or even frequently, work like the textbooks or Frank Capa movies would have you believe--after all, real people are involved--but it was a decent approximation.

Now, however, it all appears to have gone haywire in California. Stalemate. Paralysis. As Dan Walters, a Sacramento Bee columnist and one of the state’s best known political writers, has written countless times (some conjecture that when Walters has nothing new to write about, he regurgitates columns on this subject), California has become an incredibly complex socioeconomic mix while still being governed under a system designed for a homogeneous, largely agricultural system.

Walters often asserts that California is the most socioeconomically diverse and complex place on the planet. I think he needs to travel more.  I doubt he has been to Israel. In any event, he is correct that California has a very diverse population and spans very rural areas and complex urban areas.

But lots of jurisdictions both in the U.S. and abroad are complex and diverse. Fairly unique to California, however, are some of the things Californians have done to screw up the system. First was Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that capped property taxes and shifted much of the power to tax and to govern away from local government and to Sacramento.

Proposition 13 helped produce an industry based on running initiatives. (Lobbyists in Sacramento live in big homes. Campaign consultants live in mansions.) The result has been a series of often poorly drafted, confusing, and contradictory initiatives that the voters, in their infinite wisdom, have voted into statue and the constitution. Much of the state budget is not even within the purview of the Legislature; it is locked in by the initiatives.

One of these initiatives imposed term limits: six years or three two-year terms for the State Assembly and eight years or two four-year terms for the State Senate. But many legislators take the next step much sooner, seizing opportunity when it is presented rather than waiting until termed out and risking there being no next step at that point. So, every vote, every statement becomes infused with political calculation and an evaluation of how that vote or action might impact chances for a possible run for any conceivable position, no matter how remote.

Add to this the lack of a any continuity, committee chairpersons and leadership with virtually no experience, constant movement from committee to committee and from chair to chair. Add to that staff that have virtually no subject-area expertise and committee consultants that move with their boss rather than actually working for a committee as a fairly neutral consultant with real expertise in the subject matter.

Further aggravating the situation are districts gerrymandered to lock in the number of Democratic and Republican districts in place in 2000.  Even though Republicans had a minority of California congressional districts, Karl Rove, President Bush II's political guru, wanted to ensure they did not lose more and thereby threaten Republican control of the House.  John Burton, the President pro tempore of the California Senate, was interested in locking in the Democratic majorities in the State Assembly and Senate. 

So, a deal was cut: Congressional and state districts designed to maintain whatever party then controlled them.  With completely lopsided registration numbers, the general elections have become almost entirely perfunctory.  The real fights are  in the primaries, where the extreme candidate usually wins.  (Irony:  the Republicans lost control of the U.S. Congress anyway, but have been stuck with a locked-in minority of California state legislative districts for a decade.)

The result of all this are right-wing and left-wing legislators often interested more in ideological purity than finding compromise that makes government work.  Even if inclined to think independently and deviate from predictable extreme positions, fear of being attacked in the next primary election for one office or another usually prevails. 

If, despite all this, a legislator does rise above the narrow ideological interests and takes a bold move toward the center, he or she is often "taken out" by heavy campaign hits financed by activists or interest groups that dominate the party, thereby sending a strong message to any other legislators contemplating such a move.

One could probably write a book about how California government got so fouled up, but this provides a brief summary of some of the primary causes.  Bottom line:  the equisite design of the Founding Fathers has gotten way out of whack.

So, the Israeli system seems to work as designed and, according to many, does not serve the country well.  California's design, patterned after the U.S. government's, was a unique model that worked well for years, still works well in many states, and, despite a growing lack of civility and hardening of positions, still is the envy of much of the world.  However, because of a variety of primarily external developments, it has virtually ground to a halt.

I am not sure which is worse: a badly designed system working as you could predict, or a well-designed one that has been perverted.  Both are frustrating to watch.  But as the old saying goes, they beat any other system.

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