The Lessons of California and New York: Good Politics Is Killing Good Policy

Both states pit good politics against good policy. Here's why.

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Marc Dunkelman is a vice president of the Democratic Leadership Council.

Now that battles to balance California's budget and determine control of New York's Senate have largely been resolved, we ought to take a hard look at how both states walked themselves to the precipice of disaster. Understanding what drove the Golden State to near bankruptcy and the Empire State to virtual dysfunction may reveal what can be done to prevent Washington from falling into the same abyss.

For most observers, it's tempting simply to blame the politicians who drove the stalemates in both Albany and Sacramento. Too many put their short-term parochial interests above the greater good, and for much too long, too few were willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of a workable compromise.

But both state governments have been the butt of criticism from editorial boards and good government groups for years, so few experts could have been truly shocked when each dissolved into chaos. The truth is more dispiriting: Beyond individual failures of leadership, both states operate under a framework that pits good politics against good policy.

Consider the constituencies that individual members of each legislature represent. Gerrymandering in both California and New York breaks each electorate up into homogeneous pockets often firmly at ideological odds with residents in neighboring districts. And the purity of each constituency makes compromise between their elected officials terribly difficult.

Moreover, elections are structured to drive the same divisive end. The exorbitant cost of running an effective campaign leaves candidates more tempted to heed the demands of deep-pocketed donors and special interest groups. And a polarized media tars those who would strike out against conventional thinking.

The result has been to discourage elected officials from embracing the common sense middle. Consider the consequences for those who would deign to make real concessions to the other side. Their base of political support would dry up. Campaign backers—often special interest groups—would abandon them for more reliable alternatives. And partisan voices in the media and blogosphere would rant that they had abandoned their principles at the moment of truth.

In the end, the rules of the game—as much as anything else—tempt savvy politicians to vote against the greater good. And it is by a hair's breadth that the same sort of gridlock is not upending the Obama administration's efforts to reform Washington.

The unanimity of Republican opposition to the stimulus bill in the House, and the crescendo of GOP opposition to the administration's broader efforts to reform healthcare, hint that the same dysfunctional dynamic could well infect the nation's capital. But some in Washington are already making provisions now to head off just that sort of quagmire. Recently, Congressmen John Tanner (a Tennessee Democrat), Mike Castle (a Delaware Republican), introduced legislation, endorsed by the moderate "blue dog" coalition, that would require bipartisan commissions in each state to draw the borders dividing congressional districts regardless of political advantage.

We all wish, at times, that legislators would emerge to become champions of the greater good—like the Jimmy Stewart character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But the problems in Washington today and in statehouses around America are driven as much by the lay of the land as by the quality of the candidates.

Congress should act now to realign politics and policy, ensuring that it remains in the self-interest of each politician to pursue the broad public good. The Tanner bill would mark an important first step in ensuring that the structural flaws that obstructed the legislative processes in Albany and Sacramento do not leave Washington paralyzed in a moment of national crisis.