A nuclear option for the Democrats

Elect the California delegation to the House of Representatives on a winner-takes-all system statewide, with nominees chosen in district primaries. Hey, presto! Speaker Pelosi.

Here’s a modest proposal: instead of just whining about the Republicans’ unprincipled power grabs, the Democrats should retaliate.

Fortunately, we have an excellent opportunity: change the California Constitution to elect the entire California Congressional Delegation as a bloc.

California is about as solidly “blue” as a state can be in national elections. But of its 52 Members of Congress, 20 are Republicans. Move those 20 votes into the Democratic column, and we get to organize the House. (Just imagine the oversight hearings.)

Article I never mentions such a creature as a Congressional District. All it says about Congressional elections is: The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature. So there’s nothing to prevent California from making its Congressional elections winner-takes-all on a statewide basis.

Still, having Members represent districts is a time-honored custom, and district-based Members not only provide representation for local interests but also serve an important ombuds function. Anyway, the process of forming slates centrally would be nightmarish.

But we can have winner-takes-all and districts too. Run the primary system as it runs now, with the voters of each party in each district choosing a candidate. But then have the resulting nominees run as a slate statewide, with the entire winning slate going to Washington. That way each district is represented by a Member nominated by the voters of that district — obviating any Voting Rights Act problems — but the state is represented by the party commanding majority support statewide.

The benefits for California are obvious and enormous. To start with, we’d have a Californian as Speaker of the House. (Better yet, a Californian born in Baltimore, well known to be the very best kind of Californian.) A California House delegation of 52 Democrats would have enormous clout in what would then be the majority party. Anti-California policies, such as the support the Federal government gave to Enron and its accomplices during the manufactured power crisis, would be substantially curbed.

And best of all, due to the insane initiative provisions of the California Constitution, it could all be done by simple majority vote, in time for the 2006 elections. An initiative can be voted on during any statewide election, including the primaries. The Democratic primary for Governor in 2006 is likely to be a lively one, bringing lots of Democrats to the polls for the primaries. while the Republicans won’t have much to vote on, so the June 2006 primaries would provide a favorable opportunity. And since the proposal wouldn’t effect the nominating process, the winner-takes-all provision could go into effect for the November elections.

Can you say “Speaker Pelosi”?

Update: One small problem (as I learn from a helpful reader): Congress in 1967 mandated single-member districts. But it’s not clear that Congress had the Constitutional authority to do so, and there’s 19th-century precedent for the states ignoring similar Congressional mandates and having their Representatives seated nonetheless.

Other readers ask about the prospects of retaliation by the Republicans in states they control. That’s certainly a problem. But after the Texamander the Democrats are guaranteed permanent minority status in the House, even in the face of a big win nationally. So I’d say the downside risk is small.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com