Balkinization  

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

More on Calhoun

Sandy Levinson

James Read, the author of the new University of Kansas Press book on John Calhoun, Majority Rule versus Consensus, has asked me to post the following comment, which I am happy to do:

I would like to follow up on Sandy Levinson's post, "Does Calhoun still live?" I agree that John C. Calhoun's political thought sheds important, if also ironic, light on supermajority requirements, consensus rules, and the filibuster. The irony is that the better you understand Calhoun's thought, the more unworkable or unfair many of these supermajority requirements appear.

Calhoun argued that every important interest should have veto rights over collective decisions. But he did not intend simply to engineer deadlock. On the contrary, he assumed that collective action was urgently needed. He believed that blocking action was simply step one; this would create a crisis that, he assumed, would force the leaders of all interests and sections to deliberate together, discover the common good, and unanimously act upon it. He also assumed that the costs and risks of *failure* to act were equal for everyone, so that no interest could extort peculiar advantages by blocking action more essential to others. Only on these quite strong, indeed improbable assumptions, was a consensus model preferable to majority rule. If the outcome instead is either deadlock or extortion by powerful minorities, the consensus model results in policies that are more unjust than majority rule, not more just.

It seems to me this places a high burden of proof on advocates of supermajority requirements on matters like budget and spending. Consider for example California's two-thirds requirement to pass a budget. No question this creates a continuing political crisis, like Calhoun said. But can anyone argue that the result of California's budget crisis is a deliberative process better and fairer than we would get with a simple majority passing a budget? Or that the costs and risks of failure to act are equally distributed across all interests?

The same questions should be put to the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. (Calhoun, by the way, helped create the practice of filibuster when, as vice-president, he allowed John Randolph to ramble on forever in his attacks on President John Quincy Adams.) Unlike California's two-thirds budget rule, which is a constitutional provision, the filibuster is a Senate rule, owing its existence originally to majority vote and in principle alterable by majority vote -- the so-called "nuclear option" pioneered by Republican strategists a few years ago. So the filibuster falls short of the kind of constitutionally-guaranteed minority veto Calhoun sought. If there is any justification for keeping the filibuster rule -- and I'm not sure there is -- it would be that the majority rule fallback, the "nuclear option, arguably restrains the minority from excessive obstruction. If instead of a Senate rule, the 60 percent vote were made a constitutional requirement -- as some have advocated -- this in my view would empower an outvoted minority far beyond what is workable or defensible.

James Read


Comments:

"Calhoun argued that every important interest should have veto rights over collective decisions."

Is that much evidence that he supported such a veto in practice? How many "important interests" are we talking about here? Are we saying that the South slave interest was but one of many fairly equal ones? That is, did he seriously act in that fashion? How many joined him?

In practice, the "interests" of a major section of the country was rather important to the country at large. Likewise, in practice, some coalition would have to be set up with a major component very concerned about something others are not as concerned about.

They will have some power of "extortion" to hold things together. Once the group becomes too small, as the slave South did in time, and the force of the opposition too large, their side will lose. The fear of this in 1860 was an important reason for what came to past in 1860-1861.

The Senate was set forth as a more deliberative body than the House. Yes, I think supermajority requirements have been shown to add to this function. Party control can override this function without proper checks. Minority rights in the Senate is one such check.

The filibuster is but one aspect of this check and yes it is a means not an end in itself. The different ways to provide a filibuster type function suggests why have a rule set in stone (especially one as high as CA) is a problem.
 

It seems to me this places a high burden of proof on advocates of supermajority requirements on matters like budget and spending. Consider for example California's two-thirds requirement to pass a budget. No question this creates a continuing political crisis, like Calhoun said. But can anyone argue that the result of California's budget crisis is a deliberative process better and fairer than we would get with a simple majority passing a budget?

Sure. As a result, Californians will pay fewer taxes to support politically favored (numerical, not racial) minority groups and bureaucracies. If a handful of RINOs did not cave, these benefits would have been more pronounced.

Or that the costs and risks of failure to act are equally distributed across all interests?

Failure to reach a consensus compromise would cut off general government services enjoyed by far more Californians than the increased taxes would benefit.
 

The CA 2/3 rule launched by initiative, at a time in the 1980s while the aftereffects of the CA property tax limit initiative remained a controversial issue.

The initiative process, interestingly, became an issue during the bargaining in 2009 recently which finally approved the CA budget. The key capitulation was the legislature's awarding a holdout legislator one of his favorite ideas, one which has failed in referendum previously, but, nonetheless, shall appear on the ballot once again: namely, revising the state primary process to permit voting for candidates who are outside of one's registered party. Cf., e.g., this centrist Democratic party oriented site.
 

I just feel the same with "The irony is that the better you understand Calhoun's thought, the more unworkable or unfair many of these supermajority requirements appear", just because unaware people formed bad leader, this all happen in Indonesia where people not too aware with
politic
 

this would create a crisis that, he assumed, would force the leaders of all interests and sections to deliberate together, discover the common good, and unanimously act upon it.

The perennial American political fantasy of an escape from politics.

Cf. John McCain's oft-repeated solution of "getting everyone together in the same room" and knocking some heads together.
 

Anderson:

A supermajority concensus system does not escape politics, but compels the greater use of politics in order to forge a supermajority.
 

Bart, I do not think you noticed the language I was quoting.

this would create a crisis that, he assumed,

would force the leaders of all interests and sections

to deliberate together,

discover the common good,

and unanimously act upon it


That is not politics. It is not the use of politics. If it resembles anything, it resembles Lenin's "democratic centralism," which I had not thought anyone confused with actual politics (or democracy for that matter). Or, more charitably, Plato's philosopher-kings ... and again, the Republic was a utopian vision of a non-political polis.

Politics is what happens when people are trying to work out a compromise regarding incompatible ends. The assumption of a "common good" eliminates the need for politics. Isaiah Berlin is the usual person to cite here.
 

Bart:

You really shouldn't comment on things you don't know anything about. And since you don't live in California and haven't studied the history of the California legislature, our budgeting process is one of them. (I don't comment about the controversial Colorado anti-spending law for the same reason, even though I suspect it is a very bad idea.)

The Republicans in the legislature know that they cannot pass a budget. They don't have near the votes and never will. So everyone knows that the only way you get to 2/3 is with the Democrats and some peeled off Republicans. That isn't because of some nefarious plot to raise taxes and spending-- it's just the math. There is no other workable 2/3 majority.

So what are the Republicans doing? They are each trying desperately not to be one of the Republicans who has to vote in favor of a budget. Because outside conservative pressure groups will come in and challenge them in a primary or prevent them from seeking another office as a Republican. But behind the scenes, they are encouraging OTHER Republicans to go ahead and vote for the budget. Because it benefits them to vote "no" and being one of the "courageous Republicans standing on principle" while other "RINO's" caved.

The alternative, as I said, is not a budget that has fewer tax hikes and more spending cuts. Most of our spending is mandated by initiatives passed by the public, and, in any event, there's no budget that Assembly and Senate conservatives would vote for that could possibly get a 2/3 majority of both houses of the legislature. Rather, the alternative is no budget and a government shutdown. Which, when it happens, invariably gets blamed on the Republicans (just as it did on the national level when Gingrich and Dole squared off against Clinton).

So the agenda of our Republicans under the 2/3 majority requirement is not to pass a more conservative budget (they don't have the votes) and it is not to shut down the government (which they get blamed for) but rather to ensure that SOME OTHER REPUBLICAN gets blamed for capitulating with the Democrats and voting for the budget.

And that is why Abel Maldonado, this year's designated sacrificial lamb, demanded a nonpartisan primary as the condition for voting for the budget. He wants to create a system where outside conservative pressure groups can't finance successful primary challenges against Republicans who vote for these budget compromises.
 

I'm very grateful to Dilan for his extremely interesting (and, I suspect, completely correct) analysis of the reality of California Republican politics behind the scenes.
 

Dilan:

Sorry Sandy, Dilan is largely incorrect or leaves out rather relevant facts.

1) The state budget has exploded under your RINO governor and Dem legislature from $79.8 Bil. in 2004 to $103.4 Bil. in 2009. There were no initiatives involved.

2) CA government has the same problem as the Big Three - too many employees paid far more than the market average and an insane liability for a cadillac retirement pension and health care plan. What makes CA's situation worse than the Big Three is that the current Dem power structure supports this road to bankruptcy as payoffs for union electoral support. Break the corrupt bargain between the Dems and the unions and you can cut rather than increase taxes.

3) The idea that the GOP voters in the state, or indeed many Indis and Dems, want to raise taxes yet again and the GOP representatives are resisting the will of their voters to satisfy outside conservative interests is laughable on its face. In reality, support for yet more tax increases is opposed by a heavy majority of Californians. Even if they will not vote out the Dems imposing the taxes, Californians are increasingly voting with their feet and leaving for low tax states like my Colorado (where ironically and aggravatingly they vote for Dems who are trying to raise my taxes like they did in CA).

4) The choice is not to give the Dem majority all the taxes and borrowing they desire or to shut down the CA government. That is the argument of a hostage taker. Rather, if the RINOs did not cave for personal legislative pet projects, the Dems would have to really compromise and consider reversing a portion of the enormous increase in state spending over the past five years.
 

Baghdad, nothing you said there contradicts what Dilan posted. In fact, you confirmed his view. You claimed that Dems are leaving CA because of the high taxes, only to admit that they are voting for higher taxes when they get to CO. That means they are not leaving CA because of high taxes.
 

Bart:

You are being silly. The reason the compromise comes from "rinos" is because the republicans barely have 1/3 of the seats. They therefore don't have enough votes to force a budget compromise in their direction. All they can do is obstruct.

I know you are proud of the numbers you got from the Republican noise machine, but just so you know, we raised taxes when the GOP had more votes in the legislature as well. And that is because so much of our budgeting is dictated by ballot propositions that they had no other choice.

Now go back to Colorado and stop pretending that just because you read aome right wing propaganda that you know more about our budgets than I do having lived here for decades.
 

BB:

CA Dem voters are moving to CO and other states to escape high taxes. However, voters tend to keep voting for one party through out their lives as if they were a favorite sports team. Thus, we have the conundrum of CA Dems coming to CO to escape taxes, but then continuing to vote for the party that brought them the high taxes in the first instance. BTW, these folks are voting party and not for higher taxes because no one in CO runs a platform of higher taxes if they want to be elected.

Why can't these Dem voters connect their partisan voting preference with the taxes they try to escape? Why do domestic abuse victims keep going back for more beatings? Its a mystery to me.
 

Dilan said...

Bart: You are being silly. The reason the compromise comes from "rinos" is because the republicans barely have 1/3 of the seats. They therefore don't have enough votes to force a budget compromise in their direction. All they can do is obstruct.

Of course, swing votes can force a compromise. Try to pass the budget without those votes.

Just to cite two recent examples, the Blue Dogs forced a substantial compromise of the bankruptcy cramdown legislation in the House and just forced the bloated omnibus spending bill to be pulled in the Senate.

I know you are proud of the numbers you got from the Republican noise machine...

Try the official CA budget pdfs.

...but just so you know, we raised taxes when the GOP had more votes in the legislature as well.

That is why we call them RINOs. These nominal Republicans act like Dems to get elected in a deep blue state. However, as a result, they do not offer voters a choice and doom themselves to perpetual minority status. CA is ripe for another tax revolt if someone would provide leadership for it.

And that is because so much of our budgeting is dictated by ballot propositions that they had no other choice.

Nonsense. Precisely what spending do you claim is required by initiative created constitutional amendments? Parroting Dem talking points is not evidence.
 

CA Dem voters are moving to CO and other states to escape high taxes.

# posted by Bart DePalma : 12:46 PM


Dumbfuck, if they were moving to escape high CA taxes, they would not vote for higher taxes when they got to CO.
 

Its a mystery to me.

It's not to me. You're clearly an idiot.
 

This comment has been removed by the author.
 

Bart:

I have lived here for decades. I don't appreciate some conservative Coloradan who knows nothing about my state's history coming on and lecturing me about how my state's political system works.

To answer your points succinctly:

1. The Republicans, just like the Democrats, need 2/3s of each house of the legislature to pass a budget. Since they only have just over 1/3 in one house, they don't have a lot of leverage because they have no chance of passing their own budget. All they can do is shut down the government. Thus, they end up getting a little, but not much, compromise in their direction. If it were the Republicans that had almost 2/3 and the Democrats who had just over 1/3, than it would be the Democrats making most of the concessions.

Why is this so difficult for you to understand?

2. The initiatives I am talking about include:

Proposition 13, which prohibits raising property taxes in most instances.

Three strikes, one strike, 10-20-life, several prison and police bonds, and various other voter enacted laws that require that the state pay to imprison so many of its residents.

The Shwarzenneger initiative and one previous initiative, which require a certain minimum spending floor for K-12 education.

30 years of bond initiatives for various projects (over 25 intiatives in total), some worthwhile, some not, but which have committed the state to spending money far into the future.

Those are the major ones. As a result, the vast majority of major budgetary decisions are constrained by ballot initiatives, and the legislature has very little room to work within. Plus, because our state constitution requires a balanced budget, when revenues go down during a recession, tax increases become basically a mathematical necessity.

3. You assume that our budgets have no compromises towards Republican ideals at all, but they do. There are massive cuts in those few areas of discretionary spending that the legislature is able to cut, and those cuts were put in there to get Republicans to go along with it. Plus, the nonpartisan primary is a huge concession as well-- it won't be to the liking of the out of state movement conservative groups that you support, but it will be very good for Republican elected officials because they will be able to hold onto their seats without having to worry about primary challenges and they will be able to vote their consciences in the legislature. The Democrats, in fact, don't like it very much because it means that some of them may face challenges from centrist Republicans who could have never made it through a Republican primary election.

As a concluding note, you don't care about our state except as something to sneer at from your right-wing perch in Colorado. So why don't you stop pretending you know about stuff you don't?

Our budgeting process has worked in the same way for years. The objective of each Republican has always been to avoid being the one who has to vote for the budget, even though they understand that someone will have to. I know this isn't what they teach you in civics class, and it isn't how it is portrayed on right-wing talk radio, but it is the truth. And because I've been observing these budgets for decades and you haven't, I know this and you don't know what you are talking about. And the RINO's, as you call them, are no different than the rest of the Republicans in the legislature, except that they decided to take the bullet so that their colleagues (who also know that the budget has to pass) don't have to.
 

Dilan:

1) Prop 13 keeps the government from raising property taxes and does not require additional spending.

2) Prop 98 does not nearly account for the explosive growth in the CA budget and can be suspended with a 2/3 vote of the legislature. You have half that vote with the GOP. Half the Dems simply need to go along, but then again the Dems have to answer to their teacher union masters.

3) You need to identify the other initiatives to which you refer.

4) I agree with you that CA spends too much money on initiative items, but then again how many of these for which did your RINO governor, Dem Party and Dem public employee unions campaign?
 

Bart:

The dems and moderate republicans supported some of them, the republicans supported all the anti-tax and tough on crime ones, and everyone supported the bonds.

And by the way, prohibiting tax increases IS just as irresponsible as mandating spending.

At bottom, though, as I said, you just don't know how our government has worked for 27 years. This isn't RINOs vs. Conservatives-- it's a game of which conservative is going to take the bullet this year.

Finally, it is really easy to talk about how we should cut spendsing in the abstract. It's much different when those cuts will ruin the lives of one's constituents. Government is more complicayted than your simplistic ideology.
 

bb:

if they were moving to escape high CA taxes, they would not vote for higher taxes when they got to CO.

In Colorado, our constitution requires that all tax increases be put to a vote. During the 2008 general election, our new Dem state government and the Dem Denver city government offered multiple initiatives trying to raise general taxes and taxes dedicated to various basic government services. During the a heavy Dem election where many GOP stayed home, every single tax increase lost badly.

When you put the question directly to our new CA refugees, they oppose additional taxes. However, they can't seem to take the next logical step and stop voting for the Dems who proposed all the tax increases in the first instance.
 

However, they can't seem to take the next logical step and stop voting for the Dems who proposed all the tax increases in the first instance.

# posted by Bart DePalma : 3:54 PM


They're not the ones having the problem following the logical steps here.
 

Baghdad, you have an amazing capacity for finding a single fact that supports your view, while desperately ignoring all the overwhelming evidence that refutes you.

My favorite example?

These exit polls are GREAT news for John McCain!
 

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