The California Supreme Court received a case yesterday that could determine control of Congress for the first decade of the new millennium. Despite those high stakes, however, Republican leaders here are strangely ambivalent about the outcome--an attitude revealing much about today's political class.
The court must determine by Monday whether the state's voters in next year's March 7 primary will have a chance to vote on taking California's decennial congressional redistricting away from the Democratic legislature and governor and handing it to a judiciary-appointed independent commission. But to sweeten that bland morsel, the ballot proposition would also reduce the richest state legislative salaries in the nation.
That's the rub for Republican state legislators, who dominate the California GOP in the absence of important statewide officials. Sure, it would be nice to give the party a chance to control Congress for the next decade. But, the lawmakers ask, is it worth the price of reducing our take-home pay? The implicit "no" answer confirms that officeholders view their posts as just another job, and that term limits have not produced citizen-legislators.
The Republican Party in the nation's most populous state is at its lowest condition at any time in 35 years. Democrat Gray Davis was the landslide winner for governor in 1998 to end 16 years of Republican rule in Sacramento, and continued Democratic majorities seem certain in both houses of the legislature. That guarantees a gerrymandered congressional map for California with estimates for additional Democratic seats as high as 10 but more likely in the range of five to seven.
How to prevent the California infection from poisoning GOP national prospects? The state's protection against legislative arrogance is power for voters to override the politicians, a product of the Progressive Era. But propositions dealing with reapportionment are always assailed as political tampering, and invariably fail. The Democrats seemed invulnerable--until Bill Thomas intervened.
Rep. Thomas, a former political science professor, has made himself one of the toughest, most effective members of Congress over the past two decades. Working with Ted Costa of California's People's Advocate (founded by the late Paul Gann of Proposition 13 tax-cutting fame), Thomas devised an ingenious solution: Marry reapportionment with a cut in legislators' pay.
Voters attending focus groups were lukewarm when told about the evils of gerrymandering. But they suddenly became very interested when informed, to their astonishment, that their state legislators receive a $99,000 salary and effective gross pay of around $124,000. The proposition would cut those figures down to $75,000 and perhaps $90,000--not starvation wages, but a healthy reduction.
Republican lawmakers were not amused. "What it means," complained State Sen. Ray Haynes, a conservative running for the U.S. Senate, "is that in order to do the job, [I would] have to take money out of my own pocket."
But there was clearly no alternative to the Thomas proposal. It was endorsed without dissent at the state party convention, and everybody is on board--unhappily. That includes State Sen. Jim Brulte, George W. Bush's main man here.
Prominent California Republican politicians complain that Thomas didn't give them time to devise their own proposition. They say their surveys show that merely freezing legislative pay would be more popular, a claim that defies belief and (so Thomas says) contradicts actual polls.
And, the Republicans here add darkly, they would rather spend scarce campaign dollars on beleaguered GOP candidates than on a proposal that cuts their own pay. Besides, they say, with popular Gov. Davis unlocking his money chest, it will lose. Bill Thomas disagrees, and it is because of the pay cut. "We have added a factor to make sure that people will vote yes," he told me.
Indeed, Republicans I talked to seem to have their fingers crossed that the California Supreme Court (six of whose seven members were originally appointed by Republican governors) will save them the trouble and get the proposition off the ballot on the dubious grounds that legislative terms and legislative salaries cannot mix. So what if it guarantees a Democratic majority across the continent in Washington until at least 2012?
(c) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.