The Meaning of Mrs. Brown's Screams

On Thursday, state Sen. Bob Dutton, the top Republican in the upper house, claimed that Gov. Jerry Brown's wife Anne Gust Brown, who also is his top advisor, yelled at Dutton during budget talks.

What does this screaming mean? On the practical public relations side, this news guarantees the governor's office weeks of conversation and scrutiny of Mrs. Brown's role in the governor's office. But in a larger sense, the screaming report reminds us of something more profound about our state: the utter powerlessness of our elected officials to do much of anything about the budget crisis.

People usually scream out of frustration. Frustration comes from powerlessness. And it must be awfully frustrating to be an aide/wife to a governor who won an election easily, faces a huge budget crisis, and can't get the defeated minority party to contribute meaningfully to a solution. The LA Times reported Thursday that GOP legislators had lost power by failing to make a deal with Brown, but that was only half-right. The budget talks exposed the fact that everyone -- including Democratic legislators and the governor -- is powerless to make big decisions and resolve fiscal issues.

This really is the heart of California's governance problem. In most democracies, people and parties who win elections then can put forward their agenda. If it doesn't work, the voters punish them in the next election. But not in California. Our governing system has so many whips and chains and fiscal rules -- and a 2/3 supermajority requirement for raising revenues -- that it's nearly impossible to govern. And our election system is so broken, there's no real political competition for legislative seats, so lawmakers can't be held accountable by voters.

So Mrs. Brown, not to mention her husband and advisors, would be wise to repurpose the energy they are currently devoting to anti-Republican anger and use it to pursue broad constitutional reform that restores some semblance of democracy and accountability in California. Once that's done, governors and their brilliant spouses won't have time to scream. They'll be too busy governing.

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