Opinion

Dan Walters: When political rules are changed, so are outcomes

dwalters@sacbee.comMay 18, 2014 

Three years ago, early in the 2011 baseball season, the Florida Marlins’ Scott Cousins, while trying to score in a game against the San Francisco Giants, collided with Buster Posey, the Giants’ star catcher, who was blocking home plate.

Posey suffered a severely broken leg, which ended his season, and without him, the Giants, who had won the World Series the year before, had a lackluster year.

In response, a new rule is in place this year to restrict plate blocking. But the rule makes it more difficult for catchers to tag runners, as was demonstrated recently when Posey, unable to block the plate, missed a swipe tag, costing a run.

The point is that changing any game’s rules also affects the game’s outcomes. And that’s very true of politics, which brings us to two big political process changes being proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

Both proposals respond to recent events, but their effect – intended or otherwise – would be to solidify Democrats’ already overwhelming control of the Legislature.

Last year, Michael Rubio, a Democratic senator from Bakersfield, resigned unexpectedly to become a corporate executive, and Republican Andy Vidak captured the seat in a special election. Losing the seat embarrassed Steinberg and also reduced the “supermajority” that Democrats had won in the Senate just a few months earlier.

Steinberg’s Senate Constitutional Amendment 16, if approved by the Legislature and voters, would allow the governor to fill a legislative vacancy, with agreement of the involved house, and require that the replacement come from the same party as the predecessor.

Steinberg says it would reduce expensive special elections and provide more continuity of representation. But it would also protect Democrats from losing seats in low-turnout special elections, while giving them the indirect power to fill GOP vacancies.

Steinberg’s final year in office has been marred by three Democratic colleagues being suspended while facing criminal charges.

The Senate suspended the three even though the state constitution doesn’t contain any provision for suspension, just expulsion by a two-thirds vote.

Senate Constitutional Amendment 17 would allow a legislator to be suspended without pay for any reason by a majority house vote – thus giving the majority party, virtually always Democrats, immense new power.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be misused to punish, or threaten to punish, a recalcitrant legislator for purely political reasons, but who really knows? History indicates that once acquired, political power is almost always used.

A suspension should require a two-thirds vote, and there should be some requirement to show valid cause, such as pending criminal charges.

Both rule changes are supposedly public interest reforms, but serve narrow political interests.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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