California Dreamin'

Let's get on with the serious business of solving problems

Following his recent talk in San Francisco at the Commonwealth Club of California, New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg was asked during the question-and-answer period for his opinion on whether California, beset by governmental failure at all levels and massive budget shortfalls, should have a Constitutional convention. Hertzberg enthusiastically endorsed the proposal, and then went on to urge the Golden State to, once again, lead the nation and act on the opportunity to play the role of governmental laboratory.

How? Instead of just tweaking the state’s existing constitution (a mirror image of the federal model, burdened by direct-democracy), they should toss the present system and adopt a parliamentary form of government. Carpe diem. It’s a swing for the fences, but what do they have to lose? What California is doing now is obviously not working.

Hertzberg’s remarks recalled a phone call I took back in 1972 from one Bob Kelleher, an activist Butte attorney. Seems that Montana was about to hold its own Constitution convention, and Kelleher wanted his Big Sky State to consider the parliamentary form of government. He had arranged for a two-day symposium in Billings and invited me to participate. I spent two very interesting days with Kelleher and his panel, which included two academics from Canadian schools (they use the parliamentary form throughout Canada), one geographer from Los Angeles (who had recently published a book arguing that we needed to redraw state boundaries), the ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and another professor from New Hampshire.

Nothing ever came of Kelleher’s proposal, even though the panel generally endorsed the idea. He was at least a half-century before his time.

But why was he even interested in Montana considering the adoption of a parliamentary form of government? Why is Hertzberg recommending this reform today?

I’ll tell you: Because our 220-year-old presidential system, based on separation of powers, is failing us. Consider just a few examples: The War on Terror? Some have pointed out that Obama is following most of what Bush was doing by the time he left office — regardless of whether it has been effective (arguable) or even something we can afford (we can’t).

Immigration reform? Bush, to his credit, tried and got nowhere. Rail transit? Other countries have great rail transit; America has next to zilch. National debt? It has been allowed to double twice in the past 30 years. Or how about the 70 presidential nominations held hostage just because the White House opposed one senator’s earmark. Or the single senator from Kentucky who stalled a an unemployment extension and jobs bill. And on and on and on, progress is stymied and the nation waits for its most pressing problems to be solved.

Dick Cavett, in a New York Times dialogue with David Brooks, wrote about another big issue stuck in the quagmire of what our government has become: the U.S. Congress’s stumbling, bumbling and obstructionist handling of health care reform:

A friend on business visited five countries in… [Along the way, she asked people], “How’s your health insurance situation in your country?” The answers… were: “Just fine.” “Not a problem. Why?” “Takes care of everything.” “Never have to think about it.” Isn’t something amiss here, symptomatic, just possibly, of something decaying at the core?

So how would a parliamentary system fix any of this? By making responsible, effective governance possible — and that’s reason enough.

Here’s how a parliamentary system works: Voters elect only representatives. After the election, the party with a majority of representatives selects the state equivalent of a prime minister, or, as they are called in the Canadian provinces, premiers. There is no direct election of a governor. The premier then forms his or her government by selecting a cabinet from within his party’s legislative caucus. And then that government governs until it’s proven that it can govern no longer — that is, until the party fails to sustain a majority on a critical vote.

Great Britain’s parliamentary system has recently gone to an informal five-year election cycle, but even so, the Prime Minister chooses the date of the election.

Under a parliamentary system, there are no initiatives or referendums. We gain governmental effectiveness in exchange for discarding the illusion of participation through the insanity of direct democracy, which has been wholesaled through contrived public opinion polling and too much special interest money. Government is always held responsible to citizens, however, through the eternal threat of a “no-confidence” vote.

If California adopted such a system and it worked, other states could follow. Who knows how far such a revolution could spread? Perhaps even to the District of Columbia.

Regarding the upcoming decision on health care reform, here’s how things would play out if we had a national parliamentary system: President Obama announces in no uncertain terms that if the House fails to vote up the Senate health care reform bill, he will regard the result to be a vote of no confidence in his government. He will immediately dissolve the parliament and schedule a general election to settle the matter. Every representative will stand for reelection. Health care reform will be the central election issue. Our legislative Kabuki dancers will face the prospect of confronting the only public opinion poll that should ever matter — the vote. Not eight months from now, but immediately. No fuss, no muss. Cheaper, too.

If Obama were to lose that vote, his government would be disbanded and he would be replaced. But if his argument won, the question would be settled and America would get health care reform. Then the government would be able to get on with the serious business of solving problems.

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.