clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Governing by sacrifice? Please, that’s so California.

Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

The House of Representatives last night passed a continuing budget resolution (CR) allowing the federal government to continue to operate until December. Despite all the noise over the past few months that the government was about to shut down unless Planned Parenthood was defunded, the CR didn't change funding for the group. Everything is as it was before, except a pound of flesh was extracted: John Boehner resigned his speakership and is leaving the House. This sacrifice avoided a leadership crisis and allowed the government to continue.

This form of sacrificial governing may seem pretty novel at the national level, but it's not that new for the states. California, in particular, has practiced a version of this over the past few decades. As one of the nation's cultural and political path breakers, California is giving us an idea where hyperpolarized budgeting is leading us.

The budget fight of 2001 provides a great example. A recession and energy crisis had hit California particularly hard, creating a significant revenue shortfall in the state budget. California, like most states, requires that its budgets be balanced.

Meanwhile, for several decades, California has had by far the most polarized state legislature in the nation. Democrats refused to gut the social programs they had worked so hard to pass, so they sought tax increases to balance the budget. Republicans refused to raise the taxes they had worked so hard to limit, so they sought cuts in social programs to balance the budget.

Democrats, of course, maintained a majority in both chambers, but under the Constitution, budgets could only be passed with two-thirds of the chamber in support, which meant that Democrats needed to find a few Republicans to go along with them. Democrats ultimately managed to buy off four Republican Assembly members to join them in supporting the tax increase. That was the last session for all four of them. Through primary challenges and redistricting, each Republican found his career in state politics cut abruptly short, largely at the hands of his own party.

Two years later, the state faced another budget crisis, and again the Democrats sought a few Republicans to help them keep the government running with a balanced budget. Republican Party leaders in the state worked tirelessly to make sure that no Republican lawmaker would cooperate. Rancho Cucamonga Republican State Sen. Jim Brulte promised to run a primary opponent against any Republican of either chamber who voted with the Democrats. The leader of the Club for Growth visited the Republican Caucus and vowed, "We've got the knives out for any Republicans who would agree to raise taxes."

The state saw the same pattern several times later in the decade, when moderate Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria provided the key vote to pass Democratic-authored budgets. While he was protected after that by another moderate Republican, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, he never won another election, and he failed to secure the backing of Republicans for the 2014 gubernatorial nomination.

This form of sacrificial governing has become almost routine in the Golden State. Basically, it's what happens when one party (in this case, the Republicans, both in California and nationally) rejects compromise as a governing practice. If no common ground can be reached, a sacrifice must be made for government to function. Sometimes this can be negotiated, and the sacrificial officeholder can be provided with an appointed government job or a lucrative position in the private sector.

But this may well be the direction the Congress is heading. No progress will be made without some blood being shed. Obviously, there are important differences between the California legislature and the Congress. A seat in Congress, let alone the speakership, is far more politically valuable, since it's not term-limited, the pay is better, and the power and visibility are considerably greater. Giving up such a seat is thus far more costly, and it will be tougher to negotiate future sacrifices. But Boehner's scalp is already on the wall; the precedent has been set.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.