Has California cured its political dysfunction? Not so fast.

January 30

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) discusses his budget proposal at the state Capitol two weeks ago. (Max Whittaker/Reuters)

This is a guest post by Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California and Paul Mitchell of Political Data, Inc.

The federal government has been something of a train wreck lately. The shutdown was just the latest in a seemingly endless parade of partisan bickering and dysfunction.

Not long ago, California’s government suffered from similar problems: intense partisan conflict and late, out-of-balance budgets. In response, voters approved an independent redistricting and a “top two” primary. The first denied incumbents the power to directly draw their own lines and the second let primary voters choose any candidate, regardless of party, with the top two candidates advancing to a fall runoff.  The goals included empowering independent voters and clipping the wings of partisan extremism.

California has now seen on-time budgets and progress on several major policy fronts. Democrats have reached a dominance not seen in decades, yet have not passed a tax increase and on many key bills have even supported the position of pro-business organizations more closely associated with Republicans. This has generated a lot of interest outside the state. Could these reforms be the medicine for what ails D.C.?

Not so fast. We’re getting ahead of the evidence.

The new district lines did create havoc for many incumbents, causing several retirements for example. But the elections themselves were not quite as competitive as some have suggested. Four in every five races was decided by more than 10 points, and only three incumbents running for the legislature lost reelection.

The new primary system did change the rules, and 28 general-election contests featured the novelty of pitting two candidates of the same party against each other. But all but nine of the 153 winners in the general election would have made it out of the primary and won under the old rules.  And of the same-party races, fundraising, personality or geographic power bases might have explained more than “moderation.” One study found that voters could not even figure out which candidates were moderate and which were extreme, while another study found that the positions candidates took in the 2012 campaign were actually more polarized than before.

Many have noted that the Chamber of Commerce stopped all but one of its most-hated “job killer” bills last year, suggesting a more “business-friendly” Democratic caucus. But the chamber managed nearly the same feat in 2011 and 2012 — before the reforms took effect. And while Democrats have arguably shown fiscal restraint, they already got new tax revenue with the passage of an initiative in 2012 and probably don’t need to pick that fight.

Likewise, a smoother budget process began with unified Democratic control of government and a successful initiative that lowered the budget passage threshold to a simple majority from the previous two-thirds. There is a price — Republicans are now shut out of the process — but the result is still the same.

To be clear, we are not saying the reforms cannot have an effect on moderation and bipartisan comity. Rather, we urge a careful consideration of the evidence.

How might we know whether the reforms had any effect, and which ones were most important? Here are a few ideas:

  • Wait for the whole two-year cycle.  This legislature is not done yet.  Lawmakers elected under the new reforms still have another year to make important decisions.
  • Look for different behavior after a competitive race.  If election reform is the cause, those who faced a competitive primary or a competitive general election — whether of the same party or not — ought to behave differently than their peers.
  • Pay attention to whether changes come before or after the reforms.  Even if we imagine the reforms changed everyone’s behavior (not just those with competitive races), the change ought to be new this year. Changes that started earlier are likely caused by something else.
  • Look beyond the standard predictions. While conventional wisdom says that success means electing more moderates, the real impact could be felt in other ways. As an example, the open primary may have helped elect the only two Republicans with Hispanic surnames to the state legislature.

Carefully considering these sorts of issues is important. If redistricting or the top two primary had an impact, it might make sense to press the same in other states. But if single-party control made the difference, then similar unified control under either party — plus perhaps ending the filibuster in the Senate — might be the way to go.

The nation is watching California’s experiment carefully, and a lot may be riding on its example. Before we make the same changes elsewhere, we need to know how to measure what is working and think carefully about which changes to make.

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