Can We Fix Bad Politics with More Politicians?

Can We Fix Bad Politics with More Politicians?

By Steven Greenhut 

One California reform group believes the best way to deal with California’s broken political system is to elect more politicians – thousands more – to statewide legislative office.

It’s a counterintuitive idea that seems wacky at first, but has surprisingly sound reasoning behind it. Such a measure might even be on the 2014 statewide ballot.

Since 2011, San Diego-area venture capitalist and former GOP presidential candidate John Cox, chairman of Rescue California, has been pitching the idea of a “neighborhood legislature.” Californians who want to fix the state’s political problems tend to focus on term limits, campaign-finance reform, open primaries and part-time legislatures. Whatever the merits of those ideas, he says, they miss the main problem, which is a lack of representation.

California has the largest number of citizens represented by the fewest number of politicians. One Assembly member represents 483,000 Californians. In New Hampshire, with the most representative statehouse, one member represents roughly 3,300 residents. In California, there’s little chance to influence or even meet with your own legislator. In some states, a legislator is more likely to be a neighbor than a professional politician and will presumably be more attuned to local issues than the demands of interest groups.

One doesn’t get elected here by canvassing door to door, but by raising enormous amounts of money, which means currying support from the developers, unions, environmentalists and big businesses that want something in return, according to Cox.

The idea is fascinating, even if it gets bogged down in the details.

His proposal would subdivide each Assembly district into 100 neighborhood districts that represent 5,000 voters, and subdivide each Senate district into 100 neighborhood districts that represent 10,000 voters. Instead of electing 120 legislators as we do now, California voters would elect 12,000 neighborhood representatives.

They won’t need to fit in Capitol offices. Those 100 reps in each district would elect a working member to go to Sacramento. The Capitol would therefore still have 80 Assembly members and 40 senators who form a “working committee.” All 12,000 would vote on legislation, with the exception of some emergency bills. Only the working committee would have the authority to amend legislation.

Legislators would only be paid a small stipend. Critics say the process would become too unruly or is so complex that it could lead to some unintended consequences.

Neighborhood legislature supporters openly backed the recall campaign of Bob Filner, even though the measure deals only with state legislative districts. They say the Filner situation illustrates the broader problem they are trying to fix.

“[T]he only way to rid ourselves of the charlatans,” Cox said, “is to create a system where they can be removed easier; where they have true competition; where they have to go door-to-door or person-to-person to be elected – and a system that takes away the power of the funders who want something from government.”

Many good-government groups promote rules to reduce the influence of money, but there always are clever work-arounds (think SuperPACs). Government has so much power that those trying to influence it can be rather creative.

Instead of imposing finance limits, Cox wants to make money less useful in politics. With tiny districts, it’s too hard to buy enough politicians. Then again, we might see work-arounds of his system, too, such as candidates who band together as, say, the labor slate.

The most entertaining part of the neighborhood legislature idea is that it makes being a politician less valuable. Cox complains about the arrogance of politicians, Well, it’s hard to be too arrogant as the member of a not-so-elite club of 12,000.

Instead of inflating the value of politics, this proposal would reduce it. Tiny districts will make it easier to elect good people and bad ones, too. But the bigger point is it won’t really matter. There will be so many of them that no legislator will be too important or too difficult to replace. It’s certainly a different take on an old problem.

© Copyright 2013 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.

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  • published this page in Blog 2014-06-04 13:58:12 -0700