I still remember, as though it were yesterday, the defining moment in my early political awakening. I was no more than 12 years old, sitting in a podiatrist’s chair, gamely enduring treatment for a youthful plantars wart that had lodged itself deep in my foot. The doctor looked like a marine drill sargent, with close-cropped prematurely graying hair. In the midst of the procedure, we embarked on a discussion about politics. I’m not exactly sure what precipitated the first of many intense but respectful political debates Although clearly in the weaker position (he was digging into my foot with some pretty ugly looking instruments) the debate centered on the role of government in America. He posited that the business of government was business. I responded by insisting that the business of government is people.
What government should be doing is a fundamental issue confronting us in this post-Reagan and soon-to-be post Bush era. Our right-wing friends in Sacramento have demonstrated not only an opinion that business is the focus of government, but an ideological obstinance that extends far beyond respectful disagreement to ideological intractability. They have taken the notion that business is their motivator to a new low. Fortunately, their extremist views represents a minority position and in the nature of a democracy, it is the majority who rule. At least that is what we were taught in Civics class at school.
Unfortunately in California, there is a distorted vision of the basic principle that the majority governs. There are many protections for the minority so that the majority cannot run roughshod on less popular views. Most of those protections come in the form of laws that can be enforced by the courts if violated. When it comes to passing a budget or raising taxes, though, somehow the minority is in control because adoption of a budget requires a 2/3 vote. Hence the stalemate in Sacramento, where 14 right-wing political idealogues can overrule the will of the majority for their own narrow and self-serving purposes–protecting their political benefactors, Big Business, at the expense of the people of this state.
Certainly, my doctor (he ultimately succeeded in ridding me of my ailment without taking my foot with it), understood that we could disagree in an accommodation for my wild-eyed notion that helping and protecting people is certainly something to consider in the whole scheme of things. Unfortunately the 14 white men who play in the California Senate, monikered as Republicans, not only don’t believe it but think as the minority, they get to call the shots. Besides, who cares if people can’t see their doctors, get their meds, get out of bed if needing homecare workers to do so, work and have child care for their children while they are trying to break the bonds of poverty? After all, like my doctor, they insist that the purpose of government is to serve business. But my doctor did not have the responsibility of leading a state of 36 million people, nor did he believe that the purpose of government was to serve business alone. He still had a heart and some compassion, unlike the bulllies today masquerading as Republican Senators.
Perhaps most amazingly, this band of renegades is acting out its fanaticsim right out in the open. Thanks to demagogues like Tom McClintock, they think the public likes this kind of unabashed bias toward big business; that there are republicans (who voted for the budget and are the bad people) and REPUBLICANS, who are willing to deprive our neediest, our children and our students of the resources they need to survive and strive for the American Dream. It is shameful, but this “gang of 14” as they have been dubbed by the media, are still holding out. So much for the fact that they continue to move the goal posts (now their gripe is that LA stands to get more for traffic mitigation than Orange County). In the course of a budget of over $100 billion, this is pure nonsense. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about posturing for their red-meat crowd and showing which one is tougher than the next.
There is, of course, a way to bring this to an end. It is simple, and done by 47 other states. Simply end the blackmail and require that the budget be approved by a simple majority of the Legislature. It will still have to be signed by the Governor (or then overridden by a 2/3 vote). Not only will this bring us into alignment with all but Arkansas and Rhode Island, it will identify which party is responsible if things go south. Under the current system, neither party has to take responsibility and neither party does. It is foolish and has come to the point we have seen so frequently over the past decade where the budget isn’t passed in a logical or timely fashion. The consequence? Serious problems for so many Californians–from vendors, to seniors, to children to the infirm. This untenable 2/3 budget requirement allows those with no sense of responsibility or accountability to trample on the rest of us.
That’s the institutional fix to the problem and one that we should implement as soon as possible. The other one: deciding whether the business of government truly is business or the people. It is a legitimate debate, upon which reasonable people can differ. But like most reasonable differences of opinion, it requires flexibility and a willingness to compromise for the better good. Holding the people of this state hostage to their egos and neanderthal views is not the way. It’s time to bring back those who are willing to have the discussion respectfully.
I’m just grateful my podiatrist’s Republican party was a far different one than the Republicanism we see today. He was willing to meet me half-way and let me walk out of his office with my idealism and feet intact.