It’s not easy getting your approval rating into the single digits, but the California Legislature may just pull it off. Back in January, before the budget impasse had reached the point where the state was forced to issue IOUs, the California Public Policy Institute polled state residents and found that only 21% thought the lawmakers were doing a decent job.

This is what happens to a Legislature that’s designed for failure. In ordinary times, California’s Senate and Assembly are structurally incapable of acting with foresight. In times of crisis, like the present, they are paralyzed by partisan stalemate. It’s not that the legislators, as individuals, are less intelligent or more venal than the rest of us. They’re they usual mix of political people. Their real problem is constitutional. They operate under rules that were meant to protect the taxpayers but end up producing bad budgets and a lot of public debt.

The two-thirds vote requirement for budgets and tax increases is not the only case of this, but it’s the most obvious one right now. Scrapping it in favor of a majority-vote requirement would probably end the chronically late budgets and occasional impasse that takes the state close to bankruptcy. Majority rule also would make the governor relevant to budget process. He would have sole power to impose a two-thirds rule – through his veto – so his wishes would carry real weight.

What would happen then? In the near term, the Democrats would run the show, especially if they get one of their own as governor. That would probably translate into higher taxes and smaller spending cuts than the package likely to come from the current Legislature, where the two-third rule gives Republicans leverage beyond their numbers. But maybe not. If the Dems are thinking strategically, they might not want to take sole “credit” for a big tax hike. And if they’re not able to think around the corner, they may overplay their hand and invite a backlash from the voters.

Republicans, for their part, would have at least two good options. If the Democrats show no interest in restraining themselves, the Republicans can step out of the way with a clean vote of “No” and leave the Democrats on their own to face the taxpayers’ wrath. The House GOP took this tack with Nancy Pelosi’s lard-laden stimulus bill, and so far the results have been impressive. The Republicans are getting a lot more attention from Barack Obama – eager for bipartisan validation – than one might have expected after their miserable performance at the polls in November.

The other path for the GOP is that of striking a deal with the Democrats. This makes sense only if the Democrats are ready to give enough ground to get most of the Republicans (not just a couple of strays) on board.

The real payoff for the Republicans would come later, when the deals have been cut and the budgets passed. Losing the two-thirds crutch, which gave them power at key junctures without the effort to achieve a majority, would force them to become a majority party or at least a competitive one. Impossible? Not in a state with California’s historically fluid politics. The California GOP is fading now because it has grown too used to minority status. It has retreated (literally) to its inland base and has survived to this point by getting its cut of safe seats in the reapportionment process. With reapportionment now out of the Legislature’s hands, there may be fewer safe seats custom-made for GOP incumbents. At the same time, more competitive districts may open up, giving the Republicans a chance to reach more of the voting public with their pro-taxpayer message. Folks near the coast who thought the GOP was only about banning gay marriage and blocking the budget might get a more rounded view of the party, if the party’s smart enough to seize the opportunity.

None of this is likely to happen anytime soon. Californians have a long tradition of penning in their Legislature with constitutional limits that go beyond the classic checks and balances of the federal Constitution. The two-thirds budget rule dates from 1933 (it was revised and extended in 1962), and the supermajority requirement for tax hikes goes back to Proposition 13 in 1978. Both rules reflect a deep-seated lack of faith in normal partisan politics (or governors) as a check on legislative excess. What the state needs is an effective Legislature with two competitive parties, with neither so secure in its position that it can take the voters for granted. A majority-vote rule encourages that kind of politics. What California has now, instead, is an ineffective Legislature with one party firmly in charge, the other reduced to a the role of spoiler, and a governor looking on helplessly as the state drifts toward the brink.