Inflate the Legislature: A California venture capitalist’s plan for reforming an out-of-touch government
By Steven Greenhut
November’s election gave California Democrats the supermajorities they need in both state legislative chambers to pass tax increases without Republican support. Faced with numerical irrelevance in Sacramento, Republicans are brainstorming ideas to save themselves—and the state—from oblivion. The GOP could use all the help it can get. John Cox, a San Diego-based venture capitalist and former Republican presidential candidate, has a bold idea to shake up the Golden State’s one-party political system. Cox wants to expand radically the legislature’s size, adding thousands of representatives in the state assembly and senate. Though it sounds counterintuitive, the solution to California’s political dysfunction may be a lot more politicians.
In California, just 80 members of the state assembly and 40 members of the senate represent more than 37 million people. A state assembly member represents nearly 500,000 people, while a state senator represents close to 1 million. Huge legislative districts make it impossible for an individual Californian to influence a legislator, unless he’s a high-dollar donor or a lobbyist. The problem even extends to some California cities and counties. Los Angeles County is practically its own state, with five supervisors, each representing approximately 2 million people. Representatives are inevitably isolated from such vast constituencies and look for direction to powerful political interests, like unions and developers. By contrast, New Hampshire has 424 legislators serving a population of around 1.3 million. A member of New Hampshire’s lower house represents just 3,089 voters. Local, more accountable representation, therefore, requires more representatives.
One could argue that Cox’s plan merely changes the way that the state’s 120 legislators would be elected, given that the Capitol would still hold 80 assembly members and 40 state senators. But they would be chosen from 12,000 neighborhood representatives to serve as a “working committee” in Sacramento. The senate and assembly districts would be subdivided into neighborhood districts that represented 10,000 people each in the senate and 5,000 people each in the assembly. These working districts would elect the 120 legislators who would serve in legislative committees and function in a state capitol not designed to accommodate thousands of lawmakers. Except for some urgent bills, all legislation would need to gain the approval of the entire 12,000-member body, not just the working committees.
As Cox explained in a recent column, “In order to get to Sacramento, a legislator would first have to win a tiny legislative district—their neighborhood—and then go on to win the majority vote of the other 99 Neighborhood reps in their large district.” Yes, thousands more people would be in the policy mix. But, Cox argues, “they wouldn’t be ordinary politicians. They would be your neighbors, working out of their home and being paid a token amount”—$1,000 a year, with no taxpayer-funded benefits such as cars, pensions, or offices. “They would serve their state because it is the right thing to do,” he wrote, “not as a career or a way to attain further power.”
Wouldn’t the plan expand the power of politicians? Not necessarily. Think of it this way: the best way to devalue anything—from currency to collectibles—is to create more of it. Cox’s measure would be akin to “politician inflation,” reducing the power and ego of politicians by making them far less valuable. The idea is more potentially transformative than term limits, which diminished the quality of officeholders while strengthening the power of professional lobbyists and legislative staffers.
Cox originally planned to put his representation proposition on the 2012 general election ballot but wisely held off. Such a measure would have been crushed in an election in which unions spent tens of millions to pass a tax hike and defeat a ballot measure aimed at curbing their power. Cox’s idea is still new, and few people know about it. He has pledged $300,000 to put what he’s calling the Neighborhood Legislature Reform Act on the ballot in 2014.
Most of the past decade’s grand reform plans have sought to rig the political game to elect “moderates” to office. The truth is, the “successful” ones—a citizen’s redistricting commission, the top-two primary—have never lived up to their promises. It’s wrong to change the rules to affect a particular voter outcome. Cox’s goal isn’t to elect a certain type of politician but rather to foster a more representative democracy, in which legislators would be more likely to listen to the people than to special interests. Obviously, San Franciscans would continue to elect leftists, and voters in South Orange County would continue to elect Republicans. But with Democratic leaders prepared to flex their new legislative muscle and repay political favors, now could be the time to consider new approaches to keep the politicians in check. I don’t think Cox’s plan currently has much chance of going anywhere, but it’s a reform worth considering.
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is based in Sacramento.