Tom Steyer Wants a National Referendum

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

I’m trying to imagine how the national referendum proposed by Tom Steyer as part of his presidential platform would work.  He said he trusted the people to make the laws, and that he had success using initiatives in California. Of course, his great wealth spurred those law changes in the Golden State. It would take even more money to campaign for a national initiative.

It is not uncommon for rich individuals, or businesses or labor unions to put an initiative on the California ballot. The same would likely apply nationally; those with the money call the tune. Then again Steyer plans to put a crimp into the abilities of certain interests to get behind a measure-corporations. That is implied in his support to undo the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Steyer wasn’t clear on the details of his plan. He called it a national referendum. In California, a referendum is a measure to undo laws passed by the legislature. There will be a referendum on the November 2020 ballot to undo a law passed to cut out cash bail for suspects. 

Applying that device on the national level, a referendum could be drawn up over a controversial bill when passed, like Obamacare, to see if the voters agree with congress and the president.

However, Steyer bragged about his putting laws on the California ballot. We call those initiatives. The people initiate the law.

In this scenario, advocates of the Green New Deal could bypass Congress and qualify the environmental-job providing measure for the ballot. The Green New Deal has lots of details and complex interaction with many other laws on the books, so implementing such a measure on the national scale would not be easy.

Of course, if rules guiding Steyer’s proposal are like California’s initiative laws, the Green New Deal would not make the ballot because it contains more than one subject.

Which raises the question, which judicial body would decide if a measure should be tossed off the ballot before the voters act. Likely, the U.S. Supreme Court would get that role for an appropriately timed verdict. Otherwise, you would expect opponents of whatever measure is proposed to shop the lawsuit at varying judicial districts in hopes of finding a panel sympathetic to their view. Since it’s a national initiative any federal district court could render a verdict.

Will Steyer’s referendum plan include constitutional amendments? Could the constitution be changed by a vote of say two-thirds or three-fourths of the people?

The idea of a national initiative is not new. If memory serves, 40 years ago there was a measure introduced in Congress to establish a national initiative. Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel included the national initiative in his presidential campaign of 2008.

Neither of those proposals went anywhere. Which is the likely fate of Steyer’s referendum idea. 

I suspect there will be a wall of opposition from residents in the states that find relevance in the Electoral College. They would fear being trampled by the big populations from urban areas and along both coasts.

But maybe that is the thought Steyer had in mind when he made his proposal.

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