When everyone in California’s journo-political elite — from Joel Fox to Peter Schrag — is criticizing something, that something deserves a close look. Such is the case with the Citizens Council for Public Accountability – which is the heart of the new reform proposal from billionaire Nicolas Berggruen’s Think Long Committee.
The council has been called elitist and anti-democratic by just about everyone. It would consist of 13 people – appointed by the governor and other elected officials — who would have six-year terms and the mandate to tackle long-term issues by using strong powers, including the ability to put initiatives on the ballot themselves. I was recently quoted describing this as a “Jedi Council” for California, and liked the phrase so much that I will use it from here on out. (That body, to be fair, had only 12 members – five of whom had lifetime terms, including Yoda).
But whatever you think of the particulars of this Jedi Council, it is responsive to the central problem of California’s governing system. And that problem is: no person or entity has the agency and the power to govern the state.
Certainly the legislature, hamstrung by all kinds of constitutional limits on taxes and mandates for spending, doesn’t have the power to govern; assembly members and senators are more like janitors who clean up after the mess made by the system. Governors, too, lack the power to get what they want, even when they come in after winning an election by a big margin, as Gov. Jerry Brown did. Even the voters are limited in their power; California’s ballot measure system is so inflexible, and its constitution so long, that most of the big decisions were made long ago by earlier generations of voters.
The great advance of the Think Long Committee is that it recognizes this reality. Most reform proposals layer more rules and restrictions on a governing system, making it even harer to govern. Think Long took a different approach and said: someone must govern.
And then this committee of wise men and women, not surprisingly, declared that a committee of wise men and women (the Jedi Council) be the ones to govern. It’s fair to quibble with their choice of governing body (I, for one, would prefer that governing power flow to a redesigned legislature, but that’s a longer story). But at least they gave someone the power to do so.
In this light, the criticism of the Jedi Council idea is not really about democracy. Yes, the Jedi Council isn’t democratic – but the current California reality is even less democratic. Since nobody has power to govern, there’s no way for voters to get what they want by putting a particular party or politician in power. Our votes don’t matter.
The fierce, bipartisan reaction against the Jedi Council is really a reaction against the idea of giving anyone the power to govern California. By provoking this reaction, Think Long has done the state the good service of showing us the depths of our troubles. California’s big problem is not merely that the state is ungovernable. It’s that California elites – left, center and right — seem to like it that way.