Can we all get along?
That plaintive question was asked by a distressed Rodney King during the 1992 Los Angeles riots that were triggered by the acquittal of police officers accused of beating him. It has become a touchstone question, asked when discordant institutions fail.
Although there are fortunately no riots going on in Washington, the political parties of our divided government rarely get along. Republicans resent President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate for ignoring them on health care and stimulus issues. Democrats deplore the Republican-controlled House, which has become a graveyard for progressive legislation.
This “my way or the highway” approach spread to the statehouses after the big Republican victories in the states in the 2010 midterm elections. Many GOP-controlled legislatures pushed through a mostly conservative agenda on abortion, collective bargaining, immigration and voter identification, among other issues. After this year’s election, when Democrats regained legislative control in a handful of states, it was widely speculated that they would be equally partisan when legislatures reconvene in 2013. So far, however, Democratic legislative leaders have been surprisingly conciliatory.
Start with New Hampshire, the largest state legislature, where Republicans before the election held a nearly 3-to-1 edge in the House. Helped by a strong party effort that carried the state for Obama, Democrats picked up more than 100 House seats and now hold a 219-179 majority. The past two years in the New Hampshire legislature have been contentious, but there are signs this is changing.
Democrat Terie Norelli was nominated as speaker by a Republican and elected on a near-unanimous voice vote. In her first speech to the House, Norelli, who has served previously as speaker, promised to work with Republicans and consult regularly with their leaders. The voters, she said, “want a legislature that puts partisan politics aside and works in a respectful way on the issues that matter to the Granite State.”
A similar mood prevails in the New Hampshire Senate, where Republicans have a 13-11 majority. Senate President Peter Bragdon said voters wanted to end “the finger-pointing that was prevalent” in the campaign and expected legislators to discuss issues in a respectful manner and listen to colleagues who held opposing views.
Across the country and in California, Democrats also are promising to pay attention to the voters. Partisan control of the Legislature was never in doubt in the Golden State, where Democrats have long dominated. Nonetheless, as California lurched from one fiscal crisis to another, a state constitutional provision requiring a two-thirds vote for tax increases, frequently enabled the Republican legislative minority to block Democratic attempts to raise revenues. This won’t be possible any longer as Democrats in the 2012 elections won a two-thirds super-majority in both houses.
In the same election, California voters also approved a ballot measure advocated by Gov. Jerry Brown that temporarily boosts the sales tax and the income tax on high earners. The combination of higher taxes and a Democratic super-majority in the Legislature has caused concern in the business community that Democrats might go on a spending binge. But Brown and legislative leaders of both parties have promised to keep spending under control and see that the $6 billion annually that the new taxes are expected to raise will be devoted to education, as voters were promised.
A conciliatory attitude, at least for the time being, also rules the day in at least two other states that were fierce political battlegrounds in 2012. Although Republicans captured both chambers in Arkansas, they hold a narrow margin in the House, which has 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and a Green Party representative.
The good news for Arkansas Republicans is that Davy Carter is the first member of his party to become House speaker since Reconstruction. The less good news, at least for conservatives, is that Carter seems to have been elected largely on the strength of Democratic votes in the secret ballot by which the Arkansas House chooses its speaker. Carter defeated a highly conservative Republican by seven votes.
After the vote, Democratic leader Greg Leding said the vote showed that Democrats still have “considerable power” in the House and would work with the Republicans in an attempt find consensus on various issues.
The New York Senate, which often marches to a different drummer, increasingly resembles a multiparty parliamentary government. In the 2012 election, the Democrats regained by a single vote the Senate, which they had lost two years earlier. Their celebration was short-lived. Soon after the election, a Democrat announced he would caucus with the GOP. With control of the chamber up in the air because of two undecided races, five Democratic senators then created the Independent Democratic Conference and formed a coalition with the Republicans. In 2013, the Senate will rotate a Republican and an independent Democrat as president every two weeks.
Overall, Republicans are in good shape in the states. In 2010, the GOP won more legislative seats and chambers than at any time since the 1920s. In 2011, reapportioning on the basis of the decennial census, Republicans in many of these states protected vulnerable districts. As a result, GOP losses in 2012 were minimal. Democrats picked up both chambers in Maine and Minnesota and the House in Colorado, Oregon and New Hampshire. Republicans won both houses in Arkansas and the Senate in Alaska and Wisconsin, while adding a governorship in North Carolina. The GOP now holds 30 governorships.
Increasingly, states are dominated by one party. Republicans control the governorship and both chambers of the legislature in 24 states. Democrats hold unified control in 13 states, with control divided in only 12 states. (Nebraska has a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature.)
Unified government sometimes leads to excessive partisanship, but Tim Storey, a political analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, expects that both sides will be restrained in 2013. He points out that all of the chambers Democrats won in 2012 were chambers they had lost in 2010.
“They’re keenly aware of getting wiped out in 2010,” Storey said. “The last thing they’re going to do is be aggressive.”
Storey thinks that Republican-controlled legislatures will also be more restrained than in the past two years.
“Many of the states Republicans won in 2010 had been in Democratic hands for a long time, so there was a pent-up demand for action,” he said. “Republicans have accomplished much of their agenda.”
But that isn’t true in every state. Labor unions and their Democratic allies tried through an initiative to write a provision requiring collective bargaining into the Michigan Constitution. Voters decisively rejected the measure in the November election. Now, in a state in which Republicans control both the legislature and the governorship, the GOP has struck back. On Dec. 11, the legislature approved two bills that would make Michigan, the birthplace of the modern labor movement, the 24th right-to-work state. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed them into law.
Michigan aside, Republican and Democratic legislative leaders across the country have been short on confrontational proposals and long on promises of cooperation. Storey, who has talked to several of these legislators, said they want to be seen as an alternative to the gridlock that has been pervasive in Washington.
So there is reason in this holiday season to be cautiously optimistic about state legislative performance in 2013, particularly if President Obama and Congress avert the automatic tax increases and budget cuts known as the fiscal cliff. Going off the cliff would have disparate and potentially drastic effects that could change the political calculus in many states.
If the plunge off the cliff can be avoided, Washington could change its image as the capitol of gridlock. The states are already demonstrating that it’s possible for politicians to get along.
— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.