As Congress and the Obama administration continue their excruciating negotiations for an agreement to raise the federal government’s debt limit, marching closer to the prospect of default if the ceiling is not raised by August 2,[i] it’s natural to ask whether partisan wrangling makes our government just too slow to make key decisions that need to be made in today’s fast-paced world soon enough.
That was perhaps the case is the early days of the 2008 financial crisis, when the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, lead by then Speaker Nancy Pelosi, failed to pass the Bush administration’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) on what became “Black Monday,” September 29, 2008. The Dow Jones Industrial Average suffered its worst single point loss up to that time that day, falling 778 points and losing 7% of its value. Congress approved a revised version of the bill later that week on Friday, October 3 – and the markets suffered an even steeper fall the next week – but the September 29 drop was arguably a significant part of the sequence of events that undermined market confidence, leading to the massive meltdown.
For those who think that excessive partisan politics is to blame for the debt limit mess, an answer – at least for the future – comes from California. In June 2010, California voters passed Proposition 14, which transforms general elections into a contest between the top two vote winners in the primary election, regardless of party. So the state holds one primary for each election, and if the top two finishers are from the same party they nevertheless run against each other for the job. Moreover, the new rules will apply to all statewide elections, seats for the state legislature, and California seats in the U.S. Congress beginning in 2012.
The idea is that the elections will favor moderates who will have greater loyalty to voters rather than political parties. The theory is persuasive. In a party dominated system, legislators are torn between solving the problems at hand while at the same time facing pressure to act in consonance with a party platform for future elections. The Proposition 14 paradigm reduces party influence by effectively taking the primaries out of partisan hands. Pandering to a minority on the far left or far right will no longer be an effective strategy since the first and second finishers in everyone’s vote advance to the final contest.
Proposition 14 comes from what would be to some a surprising corner, the administration of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The legislation was written by then State Senator Abel Maldonado, who by the time of its passage had become Schwarzenegger’s lieutenant governor, and publicly backed by Schwarzenegger,[ii] a moderate Republican who gained the governorship through a recall election that worked like elections under the new system.
Does Proposition 14 present a model that could improve U.S. governance at the federal level? Assuming legal challenges don’t derail Proposition 14 before it comes into effect, California may offer an important test-bed to answer that question. But if the California results are favorable, don’t expect too many established politicians to help make the case for the California system to be adopted nationally, as the new rules may threaten their jobs.
Certainly, any fundamental change to the way our political system functions requires the greatest of care. But just because an idea involves change does not mean we should dismiss it. The U.S. Constitution is the cornerstone of the world’s most revered system of national governance. But to maintain our preeminence, the United States must consider new ideas on the merits, and when a new idea proves its mettle we must be prepared to put it to work.
Recent times have been difficult for Schwarzenegger, with the disclosure of fathering a son outside his marriage leading to his separation from wife Maria Shriver and her pending divorce suit. And critics of Schwarzenegger’s government career have long chided his celebrity background. But in a time when the nation is struggling to make decisions fast enough to avoid collateral damage from slow-motion leadership, Schwarzenegger deserves much credit for advancing an idea that could overcome the logjams.
[i] See, e.g., Alan Silverleib, “Fireworks in Congress as debt ceiling deadline looms,” cnn.com, July 4, 2011, http://www.cnn.com/2011/POLITICS/07/04/congress.debt.ceiling/.
[ii] See Alex Pepper, “Proposition 14 Puts Primaries Shakeup on California Ballot,” ABCnews.com, June 4, 2010, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/Media/proposition-14-puts-primaries-shakeup-california-ballot/story?id=10809262.