Two Thirds: California Republicans and the Stockholm Syndrome

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Joel Fox, a native New Englander, channeled Paul Revere on this site to warn of the coming invasion of Democrats and others seeking to overturn the state’s requirement of a two-thirds vote in the legislature before a budget may be passed or taxes raised.

I have to laugh whenever I hear Fox and other Republicans and anti-tax activists praise two thirds. Their logic is simply ridiculous. These are the folks who tell us over and over that California has gone to hell, that taxes are too high and that spending is out of control. Then they tell us that if we don’t protect the two-thirds requirement, taxes will be too high and spending will be out of control.

(Yes, you may scratch your head now.)
Which is it, guys?

The reality is that the two-thirds requirement is at the heart of the system that they denounce. Californian legislatures have operated under the two-thirds requirement for budgets since the 1930s and the two-thirds requirement for taxes since Prop 13 passed in 1978. And it is this two-thirds system that has produced the taxes and spending they complain about.

The relationship between Republicans and the two-thirds requirement resembles nothing so much as the Stockholm syndrome.* They love the system that holds them hostage. And because they cling to two-thirds, they’re stuck politically, unable to rise from their minority status.

Why? Because the two-thirds requirement obscures responsibility and prevents political accountability. In a majority-vote system, the majority is accountable for policy outcomes. But in a two-thirds system, Republicans have a say in every budget and tax increase. They’re responsible for anything that passes. So they can’t gain politically by railing against the budget status quo. They’re part of that status quo.

Fox and other Republicans would be wise to welcome the end of two-thirds. Democrats would finally own the state’s budget and tax problems. This would be good for Republicans for two reasons. 1. With Democrats able to pass a budget by themselves, they would be unable to blame Republicans and thus might have to make more responsible decisions. 2. If the budget went south or taxes got too high, Republicans could legitimately blame those problems on Democrats. And they could make a clean case for voters to punish Democrats for those problems.

Even better, both of these new dynamics would be good for the state as well as for the party.

But Republicans can’t see this reality, as Fox’s column makes clear.
*For those few who don’t get the reference, the Stockholm syndrome is named after a bank robbery in 1973 in Stockholm, Sweden. The robbers held bank employees hostage for 6 days, and the employees became so attached to their captors that they defended them after they were freed.

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