The 112th Congress, in which Tea Party members will be among the one in four members of Congress who are newly elected, will make for great political theater with sound bytes being broadcast, tweeted and repeated throughout the next two years. In terms of actually accomplishing anything of substance, we should act like Clippers or Lions fans and set our expectations very low so that we are only mildly disappointed.
What we can expect over the next two years are attempts to repeal everything from health care to the law of gravity (which will be either blocked by the Senate or met with an Obama veto); lots of confrontational oversight hearings yelling fire before there is even any smoke; futile assaults on government functions that actually help people followed by budgetary gimmicks so it can be said the deficit was addressed without dishing out any pain.
While CSPAN is playing this soap opera, the real show to watch will be on its California equivalent (The California Channel), where new Gov. Jerry Brown will force the debate we have postponed for 30 years — reconciling how much government we want versus how much government we are willing to pay for. Since Ronald Reagan entered the White House, we have been repeatedly told that we can have our cake and eat it as well since tax cuts pay for themselves. The result has been record deficits (since tax cuts do not pay for themselves) and reliance on budgetary gimmicks to avoid tough decisions.
For California, the day of reckoning has been forced upon it as it already has a 30 percent shortfall for the current fiscal year. Gov.-elect Brown appears to be ready to apply shock therapy to Sacramento, as he likely will push an austerity budget through Sacramento early in the year and then have a referendum later in the year on whether California voters are ready to pay more to restore the services that have suddenly been cut or eliminated.
It is fitting that Brownasaurus Rex is leading this effort. Brown’s father, Pat Brown, remains widely respected as an architect of California’s prosperous golden age by pushing for major investments in California’s education system, freeways and infrastructure with bi-partisan support. In contrast, the governor-elect presided over the “era of limits” as governor, with declining state investments ultimately leading to the Mississippification of the once Golden State.
At the same, with requirements for a two-thirds vote for any tax increase or budget, the advent of term limits, ballot initiatives allocating revenue and redistricting to protect partisans on both sides, the Legislature became increasingly feeble and dysfunctional. Now Brown returns at a time when California is being called a “failed state,” with a chance to restore his father’s legacy.
This is an opportune time for Brown. His longevity and legacy give him greater stature than even his predecessor. In addition, he will be aided by the fact that the Democrats have nearly two-thirds majorities in both houses and partisans on both sides may be tempered by the prospect of less safe and/or more moderate districts in the next elections with the advent of the Citizens Redistricting Commission.
Brown’s strategy is a big gamble because voters could choose less services instead of more taxes (polls currently are evenly split). Even then, however, the state will at least have had its “come to Jesus” moment and chosen a sound and fiscally prudent path setting an example for Capitol Hill. In defeat, however, Brown would unfortunately become the executioner of what remains of his father’s legacy.
If Brown can make the case for greater investment, 2011 could end with a powerful affirmation of the progressive agenda. With either outcome, however, the debate will send a dire warning to the nation of the consequences of the “cutting taxes is the solution to everything” philosophy of the GOP.
Meanwhile, turning back to CSPAN, by this time support likely will begin eroding for Republicans as voters recoil over some of the more extreme Republican antics. It is even possible that the California referendum could occur during a government shutdown in Washington (as some Republicans are eager for such a fight), in which case the California vote would reverberate throughout Capitol Hill just as the Proposition 13 vote did during Brown’s first term.
While Brown has promised not to run for president, what he does this year could provide a gust for President Obama’s sails as he heads into 2012 and elevate the governor as the party’s elder statesman. Either way, the California Channel has a new star who is sure to be entertaining.
(Editor’s Note: Lloyd Garver will return next week with another installment of Modern Times.)
Bennet Kelley can be reached at email@example.com.