Repair America!

August 28, 2009 at 3:22 am (By Amba)

If only.

If only we could do nationwide what an unlikely coalition of Californians are determined to do, and actually can, thanks to the oddities of their constitution:

California’s nemesis [the initiative-and-referendum provision that has led to metastasis of its constitution and loss of control of its budget] could soon become its salvation. […]

Jim Wunderman […] wrote [in an SF Chronicle op-ed]. “It is our duty to declare that our California government is not only broken, it has become destructive to our future. Therefore, are we not obligated to nullify our government and institute a new one?” He then called for a “citizens’ constitutional convention” to do the nullifying and the instituting. […]

[The movement that op-ed inspired], called Repair California, is trying to put two initiatives on next year’s ballot. One would amend the California constitution to allow the voters to call a constitutional convention by initiative. (As it is, while specific amendments can be passed that way, it takes two-thirds of the legislature to call a convention. That will never happen.) The other would actually call the convention and specify its scope: governance, including the structure of the legislative and executive branches; elections, including the electoral system and the initiative process itself; the budget-making process; and the state’s revenue relationship with local government.

The genius of Repair California’s approach is twofold. First, it steers clear of “social issues”: no gay marriage, no abortion, no affirmative action.

And here comes the best part:

Second, the delegates would be chosen randomly from the adult population.

It’s the dream of a citizen legislature!  It calls the bluff of William F. Buckley’s marvelous statement that he’d rather be governed by the first 100 people in the phone book than by “the best and the brightest”!  Don’t you love it?!

Read more to find out what unlikely bedfellows are supporting Repair California, and exactly how this new constitutional convention would work.  And here’s the Repair California website.  Read it and weep.  And cheer.

If only!


  1. Ron said,

    Populism burbles up in many different ways…

  2. wj said,

    While the New Yorker article says delegates would be chosen randomly, the Repair California website says that the selection process is not specified (except that delegates would be “geographically proportionate”. (There is some discussion of whether current elected officials would be excluded, as is apparently usual in other states’ process for constitutional conventions.)

    That makes a whole lot more sense. After all, if you are going to just select randomly from the adult population (census rolls? income tax rolls? property tax rolls?!?), what do you do if someone is so disinterested as to just not show up? Or simply can’t afford to take time off to attend? At minimum, I would think you would restrict selection to registered voters — at least they have shown some minimal interest in how the state is run.

    Personally, as a minimalist, I would like to see first if getting rid of gerrymandered (i.e. “safe”) legislative districts will make enough of a difference — and that’s already been set in motion (via an Initiative, of course!) for after next year’s census. After all, the reason that the Initiative process gets used so much here is that the legislature has proven so incapable of doing its job. But I admit that it may be that we simply can’t afford to wait that long….

  3. PatHMV said,

    They don’t appear to have final language for the initiative and convention call yet. The timeline says they’ll turn it in to the AG in late September. They’ll definitely have to do a better job of selection that just randomly chosen people from the “adult population.” First, will it be limited to citizens of the U.S.? To citizens and green card holders? What about folks present on temporary (in theory) H1B visas and similar temporary work permits? California has substantial populations of immigrants of all stripes.

    Here’s the thing about randomly choosing people for something like this. If they have no knowledge of this sort of thing at all, they can be fairly easily led, by staffers, interest groups, or simply some of the other delegates who have more knowledge. It might not be a bad idea to have SOME of the delegates chosen by lot, but all? I think that would in the end be a very bad idea.

  4. Randy said,

    Looking at that list of supporters, I’m not that impressed. Looks like the usual suspects, in fact. Thanks to gerrymandering (which is unlikely to be stopped by the new theoretically non-partisan redistricting commission), California’s government is answerable to lobbyists first and the citizens are at the bottom of the list. And which lobbies are the most influential in California? 1) The California Teachers Association; 2) The California Correctional Peace Officers Association; 3) Federated Firefighters; 4) Police Officers unions; 4) SEIU. (Notice the trend?) They don’t like the initiative process now, because it threatens their dominance of state government. They liked it when they could use it force the state to spend 40% of all money no matter what on schools (i.e., teacher salaries) but they don’t want any of their gains (like retiring on a 90% of final year’s salary pension at age 50 w/ lifetime paid medical as well) overturned now.

    If they get their convention, they may be surprised at what comes out of it, but I doubt it. The fix will be in before it meets. The interested parties will have their guaranteed votes sitting there. The right of recall and initiative, the great legacy of the early 20th century progressive movement against government by cabal, will be strictly limited, and the 21st century movement towards government by union cabal in cooperation with giant international corporations will continue apace.

  5. PatHMV said,

    Oh, by the way, Buckley actually said: “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”

    Even given my argument above for not trusting a random sampling for a constitutional convention, I’d still rather have the random sampling than a convention made up of Harvard faculty members, or even faculty members chosen from among all the top tier schools in the country. While they may be our “best and brightest” in some senses (though often they are neither), that does not mean that they are the best for the particular task of designing a governmental structure. And that’s leaving aside all issues of partisanship and the overwhelmingly liberal leanings of most of today’s college faculty. The skills and knowledge it takes to be a faculty member are not necessarily the same skills and knowledge one would need to be an effective architect of a governing constitution. Input from academics, yes. Control by academics? No.

  6. amba12 said,

    Thanks for correcting the quote! I should’ve. I tend to take a holiday here from the arduous work of fact checking, to the detriment of the blog.

    Obviously, being a U.S. citizen should be a prerequisite for being a delegate. Temporary residents should not have a say in the reshaping of a government in which they don’t have a permanent stake. You’d have to be nuts not to agree to that.

    What about literacy? I’d say yes, except that illiterate people may actually know things literate people don’t.

    Apart from that, I think the idea is governing as analogous to jury duty: something anyone of age, in principle, could be called upon to do. That’s kind of an exciting idea — messy in practice, but people might rise to it.

  7. amba12 said,

    Randy: that’s depressing. But, like wj, you live there, so you know whereof you speak. The rest of us can only fantasize.

  8. wj said,

    If you are talking about government here, it’s not a fantasy, it’s a nightmare. A subtle, but important, difference.

  9. Randy said,

    If they have no knowledge of this sort of thing at all, they can be fairly easily led, by staffers, interest groups, or simply some of the other delegates who have more knowledge.

    This is true, Pat. It is also true of the California legislature today, thanks to term limits. The problem with passing what appear to be simple laws is that the law of unintended consequences reigns supreme.

  10. reader_iam said,

    I’m getting to the point where I think no one should be writing or designing anything having to do with government unless they’ll personally be helping to pay for whatever they’re writing or designing. This is because so far as I am concerned, much of what passes for governance is organized extortion.

    Shorter: IMO, whether randomly chosen or not, delegates should be literate, adult U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote and who **owe and pay** taxes.

  11. reader_iam said,

    Probably “history of owing and paying taxes” is a better way of putting it. Anybody can be temporarily unemployed, including those with a history of owing and paying taxes.

  12. reader_iam said,

    That would cover the retiree issue, too.

  13. amba said,

    That’s a very interesting variation on the theme of the old property requirement to vote from Revolutionary times. And in my view, without giving it deep thought, it’s a very good idea in this context. (Again without deep thought, the vote is different.)

  14. reader_iam said,

    Eh. I’m seeing more loopholes and problems in my first, dashed-off comment.

    Here’s my bottom line: We have too many people demanding too many things which they, themselves, don’t contribute to paying for, or at least not enough in relation to what they think they’re entitled to. We have too many people who don’t owe taxes, whose biggest stake in the system is what they can get or avoid. This is as against those whose biggest (though not only) stake is what they must pay for. Well, you know, it’s easy to demand stuff if you’re not the one who’s going to be on the hook. I’m just getting a little tired of that. No, a lot tired of that–so much so that I no longer have any problem in saying that some adult U.S. citizens OUGHT to be more equal in others–those who actually are required, and do, foot the bills.

  15. amba said,

    Yes: those who pay the bills ought to get credit — and respect — dare I say gratitude — for it. Good point about history of taxpaying, though.

  16. wj said,

    If you are going to put a threshold on how much paid in taxes (and I assume that you mean income and/or property taxes, since pretty much everybody pays sales taxes), it may be worth considering those whose contribution is non-monetary. I’d hate to consider discounting those in the military who are paid too little to owe much in income taxes, but contribute nonetheless.

    (And, before someone else brings it up, yes I read the story where the assumption is that service in the military is the requirement for voting, but those still on active duty couldn’t vote. It was, to put it briefly, silly. But Heinlein had that problem sometimes.)

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