Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The essential ingredient California needs to make a new Constitution work

Has the State of California become ungovernable?

That's a conclusion that many in the Golden State seem to be reaching these days. Via Calitics (where we at NPI go when we want to know what's happening in California), we hear that momentum is building for a Constitutional Convention to repair the state, rebuild its common wealth, and save it from financial ruin:
We think it is undeniable that California’s government suffers from drastic dysfunction – our financing system is bankrupt, our prisons overflow, our water system teeters on collapse, our once proud schools are criminally poor, our democracy produces ideologically‐extreme legislators that can pass neither budget nor reforms, and we have no recourse in the system to right these wrongs.

Most of these problems are a byproduct of the outdated system and rules of governance enshrined in our current constitution. California’s constitution was always meant to be a living document that could adjust to the times, but it hasn’t been systematically reformed since 1879. Our constitution needs serious structural reforms, chosen and authorized by the people, and a Constitutional Convention is the only politically viable means to achieve those reforms.
We agree with that assessment.

If you ask us, California's biggest problem - the root cause of a great number of its current challenges - is that its Constitution is too easy to change.

Conservative Californians have succeeded, at different times, in amending the Constitution to undermine both majority rule and minority rights.

A founding document that can be amended by the people on a whim at an election is not a founding document that will stand the test of time.

Think about it: if the Constitution of the United States could be changed merely through a nationwide ballot initiative, would it still be the revered document that governs the oldest modern democracy in the world today? Of course not.

Democracy inevitably crumbles or breaks down when we forsake our cherished tradition of majority rule plus minority rights. Think of it as an equation: you can't get to democracy (the sum) without both parts.

Taken to the extreme, either part eventually leads to something (maybe ochlocracy, maybe oligarchy) that is not democracy.

This is why we have a Constitution that is separate from the body of our laws. The idea of majority rule should govern lawmaking; the idea of protecting minority rights should govern the process for changing our founding documents.

The United States Constitution is difficult to amend for this reason. Since it was initially agreed upon, it has only been modified twenty seven times.
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.
Similarly, Washington State's Constitution is not easy to amend.

This is a good thing. Imagine if Washington was like California... Tim Eyman would have probably succeeded in wreaking havoc upon our Constitution by now.

What a nightmare that would be.

In Washington, any changes to the State Constitution must originate in the Legislature. Once an amendment has received two thirds support of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, it can be placed on the ballot for ratification by the people. Ratification requires a simple majority vote.

This process, described in Article XXIII, has silently thwarted all kinds of conservative mischief over the years.

And, as far as we up here in Washington are concerned, our process - which has served us well - is there for the reusing. If and when Californians hold a Constitutional Convention, we hope they copy it.

Without such a provision, they can never hope to come up with a Constitution that's anything better than what they already have, because it could simply be trashed the next time Golden State voters say yes to a right wing ballot measure.


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