After sitting through Tuesday’s five-and-a-half-hour, standing-room only summit on the possibility of a California constitutional convention, I came away with two strong impressions.
1. A constitutional convention, while it would be difficult and dangerous, is something California should do. There is so much frustration with the status quo here, and so many different ideas about how to fix things, that we need a top-to-bottom review of our state constitution. We need to pare back the convention (it runs more than 150 pages), and look at all three branches – the legislative, executive and judicial.
2. The Bay Area Council and other good government groups, in their heart of hearts, don’t really want a constitutional convention. They want legislative reform – changes in how laws are made, budgets are passed, and lawmakers are elected.
Many of the ideas that were offered Tuesday were good-from changing two-thirds to turning the legislature into a unicameral -but the agenda, constitutionally speaking was narrow. There was no talk about California’s outdated judicial branch. There was very little discussion of the structure of the executive branch, the powers of the governor, and the problems of regulatory bodies – like the Public Utilities Commission and the Coastal Commission – that are partially embedded in the state constitution. What there was: a lot of talk about "controlling" or "focusing" the agenda of a constitutional convention.
I understand the appeal of a narrow agenda and the desire not to let a convention get out of hand. (The last convention, in 1879, did get out of hand, and an entire article devoted to discrimination against the Chinese was added to the constitution). But a narrow agenda also will undermine the effort. For a constitutional convention to be embraced by voters and people on both sides of the partisan divide, it needs to be – in perception and reality – a wide-ranging, fair-minded look at the whole document.
And voters should be suspicious of a summit on constitutional reform that meets for more than half a day without discussing the state’s miserable courts, hearing from a judge, or discussing the governor’s power. (The post is the most powerful in the state, and among the most powerful governorships in the country. Even if you like it that way, it’s remarkable to have a discussion about a constitutional convention without the subject coming up). I also didn’t hear much about how to pare down the document.
If the groups behind yesterday’s event (full disclosure: among the sponsors was the centrist think tank that employs me, the New America Foundation) are serious about holding a convention, they need to accept they won’t have control. It’s the nature of the beast. They need to talk not about specific reforms, but instead focus on the principles they want a new constitution to embody. (My suggestions: a new document should be 1. much shorter 2. easy for citizens to understand 3. reflect the modern economy and technology 4. focus on restoring accountability to California’s systems)
If what the groups really want is major legislative reform, then what these groups ought to do is stop talking (there’s been discussion of all the ideas advanced Tuesday for years) and start fundraising and organizing for a series of ballot initiatives to do just that.
For my part, I’ve turned around on the subject. When the idea of a convention was first raised last year, I was wary of it (though I love spectacles and liked the idea of a big splashy event, perhaps in the old capital of Monterey, perhaps with delegates wearing powdered wigs). But now I think the value of a holding a wide-ranging convention is great. And the risks – governmentally and politically – are not that great. Voters after all would have to sign off on any recommended changes from the convention.
Such a gathering would attract attention – on Tuesday, the summit attracted a huge crowd on a Tuesday – and educate Californians about their history and how their government works. The value of that education – and the resulting engagement – would be worth the trouble of putting on the convention, even if very few changes come out of it.