California is accidentally conducting an experiment in parliamentary government, which allows the executive to govern by decree.
For the past decade, California has been a case study in one-party rule.
Democrats hold every statewide office and enjoy overwhelming majorities in the congressional delegation and both legislative houses. Republicans, due largely to their own failures, are irrelevant.
With no partisan competition, whatever Democratic leaders decide behind closed doors is quickly written into law, including the massive state budget. Even when hearings are held, committee chairs routinely limit testimony to a couple of brief presentations and require everyone else to just state their names and positions.
As worrisome as those aspects of one-party rule may be, we have now entered still another political phase in California — one-man rule.
On March 4, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency, allowing him to override virtually every law on the books.
The Legislature readily acceded, giving Newsom $1-plus billion to spend as he sees fit and abandoning Sacramento for the next two months. Newsom has issued multiple orders to control personal and economic activity and executed many high-dollar contracts with no public input and only very limited ability of journalists to question their efficacy.
Newsom has also not hesitated to crack down hard on those who don’t obey, an attitude tinged with irony since he first achieved political notoriety as mayor of San Francisco by defying a voter-approved state law prohibiting same-sex marriage.
In effect, we’re accidentally experimenting with how California would be governed were we to turn away from our current structure and adopt, instead, the parliamentary system used in Great Britain, Canada and most European countries.
Our structure, mirroring the federal government, is one of checks and balances — a separately elected chief executive, a two-house legislative branch and a court system to oversee acts of both.
It is, by design, an unwieldy system, requiring policy proposals to clear a series of procedural hurdles before becoming law, albeit truncated by one-party rule.
Under a parliamentary system, the party or coalition that controls the legislative branch also controls the executive. The prime minister, as the head of the legislative majority, can govern by decree as long as he or she holds the majority and does not lose a vote of confidence.
That’s pretty much Newsom’s position now. He can continue to issue decrees with the force of law as long as his emergency declaration is in place.
So, how long will that be? The pandemic could fester for many months, even years. The recession that Newsom’s shutdown orders induced could easily outlast the medical emergency. Would he just continue to exercise emergency powers indefinitely?
Legislators are beginning to be annoyed at being left out of the loop.
Last week, in his initial analysis of Newsom’s much-revised 2020-21 budget proposal, the Legislature’s analyst, Gabe Petek, said, “In many cases, we are very troubled by the degree of authority that the administration is requesting that the Legislature delegate.” Petek urged the Legislature “to jealously guard its constitutional role and authority.”
Later, the chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, Los Angeles Democrat Holly Mitchell, echoed that position, complaining during a budget hearing that Newsom was bypassing the Legislature.
The state law allowing Newsom to declare an emergency says he “shall proclaim the termination of a state of emergency at the earliest possible date that conditions warrant,” but also allows the Legislature to end it “by concurrent resolution.”
Republican legislators have introduced such a resolution. Its passage would be analogous to a no-confidence vote in the parliamentary system we now seem to have adopted, as least temporarily.