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October 18, 2013
Viewpoints: Petulant Legislature agonizes even in victory

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(Oct. 18 -- By Ben Boychuk, Special to The Bee)

Behold the power of divided government! For 16 days, roughly one-fifth of the federal government sat idle as Republicans and Democrats engaged in an elaborate and ultimately pointless exercise in political theater.

The result?

Happily, the federal government didn't default on its debt payments. The economy didn't fall to pieces, either. For most people, life went on as usual.

And the Republicans didn't get a thing they asked for. Members of Congress and their staffers remain exempt from the mandates of Obamacare, which remains fully funded. Nor will the law be delayed - which actually may be good news, considering what an abject, lumbering failure the rollout of the state and federal insurance exchanges turned out to be.

Voters are angry with President Barack Obama and the Democrats, but they're especially peeved with the GOP. Apparently, Moveon.org and the Huffington Post are circulating a petition to have Republican House leaders arrested for sedition for the crime of exercising their constitutional prerogatives. How will the republic survive?

Now bask in the glories of undivided government. Cast your gaze on a state government where Democrats hold every statewide constitutional office and command supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature. About all Republican state lawmakers could do for the past few weeks is metaphorically crouch in the metaphorical fetal position and do their best to protect their metaphorical vital organs from the blows metaphorically raining down upon them.

The result?

Gov. Jerry Brown last week put a coda on this legislative session, signing 800 bills and vetoing just 96. That's a signing rate of 89.2 percent.

Yet the Democratic leadership isn't happy. Not happy at all. For these guys, even near-total victory isn't enough.

Consider Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. Among his top priorities this year was to ram through a package of draconian gun control bills in a state with some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation. Among them: a ban on most semiautomatic rifles.

Brown vetoed Steinberg's Senate Bill 374, pointing out the obvious fact that it would harm law-abiding gun owners and most likely have no effect on crime. After all, semiautomatic rifles are the weapons of choice for many hunters and sportsmen, not gang bangers, robbers, or even spree shooters.

No matter. Steinberg had to wave the bloody shirt one last time. "Since the horrendous mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, last December, more than 1,100 Californians have been killed by continuing gun violence," he said. "I'm very disappointed that with the veto of SB 374, we have missed the opportunity to curb that violence and save more lives," he lamented. "I believe aggressive action is precisely what's needed to reduce the carnage in our communities."

What Steinberg didn't say - what he couldn't say - is how many of those deaths could be blamed on the weapons he sought to ban. If history is any indication, the answer is fewer than 3 percent.

Consider, too, the lamentations following Brown's veto of AB 1401, Fremont Democrat Bob Wieckowski's legislation to let green-card-holding immigrants serve on juries. AB 1401 was ill-conceived from the start. Wieckowski argued that letting legal immigrants serve on juries would broaden the pool of jurors. But the problem afflicting California's courts isn't a lack of eligible jurors. Rather, it's a lack of judges and space.

"I don't see anything wrong with imposing this civic obligation on immigrants who can spend the rest of their lives in the United States," Wieckowski said after Brown's veto. But the bill's supporters not only failed to distinguish between the rights of guests and the special obligations of citizenship, they appeared intent on obliterating the distinction.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez gave the game away last spring when he lambasted the bill's opponents as racist xenophobes. "What I think is problematic is that some people hear about something new for a group of immigrants and immediately think there must be something wrong."

Count Brown among the xenophobes, in that case. The governor took a refreshingly patriotic, old liberal - and again obvious - line in his veto message. "Jury service, like voting, is quintessentially a prerogative and responsibility of citizenship," he said. "This bill would permit lawful permanent residents who are not citizens to serve on a jury. I don't think that's right." What could be simpler?

Democrats' grumbling in the midst of triumph brings to mind Daily Caller columnist and court jester Jim Treacher, who quipped the other day, "If there's anybody angrier than a liberal who's just lost, it's a liberal who's just won." The dictum applies as much to our petulant state legislators as it does the unenlightened wannabe statesmen who roam the halls of Congress.

A worthwhile opposition party would take advantage of this grousing. If these are the fruits of undivided government - a supermajority that can barely contain its disappointment with its amazing leftward progress - then maybe divided and divisive government deserves a second look.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Contact him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

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