Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Political decision making

For me, the most interesting issue regarding how I decide what to support on a ballot is California's Proposition 93.

This bill is a structural one, rejiggering the term limits for California state legislators. It is, theoretically, party neutral. It lacks the confounders of big money or most serious religious or ideological involvements. It's not a proposal that relies on fundamental assumptions about race or gender or privilege.

With term limits, there are certain inherent arguments that should theoretically be testable. It's not just that term limits help us avoid career politicians, the stated argument, but that career politicians are de facto bad, and that they are bad because they are undemocratic and form themselves into an elite class which makes them poor judges of public good. If men are best at serving themselves first, we should endeavor to keep them as like us as possible, to ensure the best service.

Because this is largely a non-partisan question, and because the legislation has limited remit, it should be easier to agree on goals for legislators—they should be effective, or able to review and pass legislation that is needed; they should be adept, or able to pass legislation that withstands scrutiny from judicial review; they should be conservative, and pass as little new law as possible; they should be representative, and come from a broad array of backgrounds.

I should, here, say that these are simply my back-of-notebook criteria. And they've certainly been influenced by what I've read around 93, if I might clumsily segue.

I started by reading the Secretary of State's voting guide. Aside from the Yes/No synopsis, which I found kind of confusing until I read the actual law, there are two arguments from the Pro/Con PACs. The Con, from California Term Limits Defense Fund's Bob Adney, is basically that this is a boondoggle supported by current politicians to extend their terms.

And he's right. This would start the clock over for politicians serving now, so they could go over their 14 year limit currently enshrined. That's an obvious incentive to support it for serving pols.

But, aside from some serious disagreements with my government—I deplore some of the copyright and electronic surveillance that has been ayed by Dems here in California—I generally like the folks that are in. I think Villaraigosa's a machine-made boss, but I don't really mind that he supports this as a sop to his state congressional backers. And in the future, the proposal would actually lead to shorter term limits.

Then there are the questions raised about how effective the current term limits are in promoting the good governance outlined above. Prop 93 started with this study, from the Public Policy Institute of California.

First off, they went with assumptions like that more diverse representation, closer to the demographic makeup of California, is a good that should be pursued. I'm mildly favorable to this point, as it is another facet of the fundamental Red vs. Expert debate inherent in term limit arguments. The good of having democracy/ideology/identity conflicts with the good of expertise, as came up again and again in the USSR and PRC (hence the shorthand "Red vs. Expert"). But while I'm normally nominally on the side of the expert in most things, especially within the executive branch, congresses are populist institutions. As term limits facilitate a reasonable level of pro-democratic reform, I'm OK with that so long as the decrease in expertise can be mitigated.

The study by the PPIC found that the current term limit regime wasn't doing that—they found worse oversight, less effectiveness, more susceptibility to outside lobbyists. It also found that since most congress members come from and proceed to other elected offices, that term limits had no real effect regarding career politicians.

I haven't gone through the entire study yet, to see their methodology, but I trust their conclusions, which brings me to the third part of making a decision: checking the sources. By looking at the front pages of the websites pro and con, I gave 'em about equal credence—they were both professional, they both made shallow, emotional appeals. But the Term Limits Reform (or Yes) folks linked to the PPIC site, and along with having the study upon which 93 was based, they also listed their funders. Both Term Limits Reform and Stop the Politicians vaguely list their PAC backers, but TLR does so more transparently.

Sourcewatch.org didn't have any info on either of the sides, but I have to say that my confidence in Sourcewatch has declined now that I see they're a public wiki.

My initial reaction, upon seeing the proposal, was to vote against it because I'm reflexively against career politicians. But noting that term limits haven't impacted that here, and that the current structure is counter-productive to the legislative goals that I feel are important, and because I feel like I can trust the study's veracity, I'm going to vote for California Proposition 93.

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