George Lakoff has a way with words. The UC Berkeley linguistics professor has spent a great deal of his career commenting on the ways that conservatives have used rhetoric to frame the political landscape to their advantage, gaining nationwide attention in the process.
Recently, however, the professor has engaged in some word play of his own. In recent months, he has criticized the two-thirds vote threshold required in both houses of the legislature to pass a budget or raise taxes. “As I see it, democracy is the main issue in the governance of our state,” he writes in a September 2009 piece on the liberal Web site Truthout. “The two-thirds rules have an anti-democratic effect. Our legislature is currently under minority rule.” To that end, he has authored and is currently collecting signatures for a constitutional amendment to allow the legislature to pass a budget and raise taxes by a simple majority vote.
The first problem with Lakoff’s statement is that he assumes the Republicans in the legislature are representing only a small minority of California voters. Nothing could be further from the truth. Proposition 1A, which would have extended temporary tax increases, was defeated at the ballot box in May 2009 by over 30 percentage points and in every single county in the state. More recently, a January Rasmussen poll found that only 28 percent of voters favor tax increases as the best solution to fix the state’s budget woes. Mr. Lakoff’s qualifications as a linguistics professor notwithstanding, 28 percent doesn’t quite fit the definition of majority. But let’s dispense that for a moment and assume that the majority party in the legislature really does represent the views of a majority of Californians. Does the two-thirds vote threshold constitute minority rule, as Lakoff claims? If so, then there are several other things that also must qualify as “minority rule:”
* The rules on cloture in the US Senate. Since Democrats took over the body in 2007 this has been used mostly by Republicans but just before then Democrats used the process to block several of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, as well as many laws, from ever reaching a floor vote.
* Rules on removing an official from office. Removing almost any elected official from an office requires at least a two-thirds vote. Had this been a majority vote, President Clinton could have been removed from office with just six more affirmative votes instead of 22 more.
* The process for amending the US Constitution. This may be the biggest triumph of “minority rule” of all. Not only does it take two-thirds of both houses of Congress, but three-fourths of the states as well.
* The US Constitution itself. The Constitution could not go into effect until it was approved by nine of the thirteen states.
So are these examples of obstructionist “minority will” where a minority can effectively run the state by refusing to provide the votes needed for progress unless their will is implemented (as Lakoff claims is currently the case in California)? Of course not. Each of these cases is a representation of one of the fundamental principles of the American republic: empowering the majority but placing limits on their power to protect minorities.
In order to make sure that important changes and policies are executed wisely and while addressing the concerns of those not in power, certain actions require more than a majority vote. This includes our budget process. Because the annual budget has such far reaching impacts, it is wise that it be held to a higher standard. This is by no means minority rule. If the California legislature were under minority rule, Republican legislators would be actively implementing their agenda. This has not happened and indeed is not possible. Both sides must negotiate to reach a deal that is acceptable to both parties (or at least enough members of both to secure a two-thirds vote).
One can also easily imagine a scenario in which the tables are switched, with Republicans in the majority and Democrats the minority. Just as Republicans in the present scenario have been fighting for their principles, Democrats in this case would likely oppose the majority Republicans to make sure their “progressive” ideas are addressed in the final product. Somehow I imagine that in this case Professor Lakoff’s “minority rule” would quickly turn into “a check on power.”
Californians should reject Professor Lakoff’s proposed amendment, and the professor should avoid baseless rhetoric.