Tony Benn, stalwart representative of what the British Labour Party used to stand for back when it took its own name seriously, has morphed even in the eyes of his critics from a kind of left-wing bogey to National Treasure (and the British vote on this kind of thing, so I mean that quite literally). His views haven’t changed, so it seems that people are finally waking up to the implications of the so-called free market. Benn, who left the House of Commons as he put it, to get back into politics, was fond of saying something to the effect that he knew he must be doing something right whenever he’d receive death threats in the post.
Alas, I have yet to receive anything as exciting as that. The closest I came, however, was when I posted some critical comments on a story describing California State Controller John Chiang’s move to halt legislators’ pay for failing to pass a balanced budget on time. An NPR survey conducted at the time suggested that a mere 2.8% of respondents didn’t agree that Chiang was a “hero”. I got the usual “tax and spend liberal”, “union troll”, and worst of all, “Democrat”, thrown my way.
But earlier this week a judge insisted that Chiang overstepped himself in stopping legislators’ pay (I’m not gloating, really). According to the Sacramento Bee, “[the judge’s] ruling essentially says the Legislature can determine for itself whether a budget is balanced under the state constitution. ‘A contrary result could threaten to undermine the Legislature’s essential function’, [Superior Court Judge David I] Brown wrote”.
The paper also noted that Chiang was a bit tetchy about the decision, declaring that “the court’s tentative ruling flies in the face of the voters’ will by allowing legislators to keep their salaries flowing by simply slapping the title ‘budget act’ on a sheet of paper by June 15”. I’m struck by how inconsistent the narratives about legislators are. On the one hand, they’re supposed to be a bunch of fire-breathing ideologues who will stop at nothing to implement a partisan programme. On the other hand, we hear from Chiang, they’re so many miserably opportunistic misanthropes who care for nothing but their paychecks. Politics and society are a bit more complicated than a budget’s bottom line, and we need to give our lawmakers some flexibility. I think that a temporarily unbalanced budget is infinitely more desirable than an eviscerated school system, a devastated social welfare structure, a shredded university system, and a generally impoverished public sphere.
I’m sure the measure to dock legislators’ pay continues to appeal to voters who would be pained to hear that their own ignorance in passing and remaining enamoured of Proposition 13 might have something to do with our problems. Nor do voters help matters with their incredible inconsistency (deciding that they want high speed rail and declaring their support in poll after poll for well-funded higher education while whining about taxes).
I hate to use the much abused “un-constitutional” term (in the sophisticated political parlance of the modern Republican Party, this is a word you throw at anything you don’t like in the hopes that it will stick), and I have no idea if it applies in any legal sense to Chiang’s move. But as whenever I’m at a loss for words, I turn to Thomas Paine, whose words we should bear in mind:
“There never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a Parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the ‘end of time’ or of commanding for ever how the world shall be governed, or who shall govern it; and therefore all such clauses, acts or declarations by which the makers of them attempt to do what they have neither the right nor the power to do, nor the power to execute, are in themselves null and void. Every age and generation must be free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow ... Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require. It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated”.*
Constitutions should restrict themselves to sketching out broad principles, lest they intrude on the prerogative of citizens in the here and now. California is already too perfect an example of what stuffing a constitution full of legislation does to a political system for us to countenance the kind of affront that Chiang’s actions represented. A balanced budget amendment, to my mind, falls into this category described by Paine in the above quote, because in a system like California’s, it has the (presumably unintended?) effect of mandating a particular response of a particular ideological character, to a budget shortfall. It denies legislators the flexibility to evaluate the moral case for our public sphere and, because of the supermajority requirements and the inviolability of property tax thanks to Prop 13, mandates a vicious austerity regime.
* Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man.