Have you ever tried cycling up a very steep hill – without shifting the gears on your bike? That’s how Democrats and progressives at all levels of government try to enact “change” once elected, by playing rules that are deeply stacked against them – designed to make them fail. Meanwhile, most elected officials tell their base to keep “pedaling harder” – even if we never see results. Rarely do we hear about structural reforms that could make change possible. In Washington, the filibuster rules in the U.S. Senate have stalled our federal agenda. In Sacramento, the two-thirds vote requirement has given us a blue state with an Alabama budget. And at San Francisco City Hall, the Mayor’s absolute power to not spend money results in dysfunctional budgets that thwart the will of the Supervisors. We all know the saying: “insanity is doing the same thing over again, while expecting a different result.” And at the federal, state and local level, the process is insane.

The Bizzarro World of the U.S. Senate

As Majority Leader Harry Reid said last week at Netroots Nation, “Republicans have made 60 the new 51.” The current Senate Rules allow any member to anonymously state their intention to filibuster legislation – which puts it on hold, and the Senate cannot proceed without a 60-vote super-majority. As a result, the mere threat by a right-wing obstructionists has allowed them to control the upper chamber of Congress where Democrats have a big majority (and where Republicans have never had 60 votes.)

Health care legislation and Wall Street reform were severely castrated. Reid says we “don’t have 60 votes” to pass comprehensive climate change reform this year – despite the BP oil spill. Immigration reform probably won’t happen either, and Reid won’t even bring up the DREAM Act unless he has 60 votes. After an election where Democrats got the White House and huge majorities in both houses of Congress, Nancy Pelosi’s House made impressive accomplishments. But the Senate is where progressive reform came to die.

One would think the Senate Democrats would be demanding filibuster reform now – and it’s true that some junior members are making waves. But we can’t change the Senate Rules until the first day of the next Congress – January 2011 (after the 2010 elections). And when you have Senators like Dianne Feinstein say that filibuster reform “won’t happen” and others even saying the system’s “been working,” we’re in trouble.

At Netroots Nation, I asked freshman Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) – who has introduced filibuster reform for the next Congress – why Democrats in the Senate not passed this in January 2009, which would have made it easier to pass a whole slew of progressive measures? “We were under the myth that we had a filibuster-proof Senate once we got 60 votes,” he said. “I remember asking about it, and was told not to worry about it because we’d have 60 votes once Al Franken got seated. Well, we found out what 60 votes got us.” Joe Lieberman and Blanche Lincoln killed the public option.

Prop 25 a Start to Break Impasse in Sacramento

As Republicans pander to their nativist base and California becomes more Latino in its population, the state that gave us Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Howard Jarvis has evolved into a solid Democratic bastion. If there’s any part of the country that should be a laboratory for progressive ideas, it’s California – because that’s where progressives can elect more of their own. But in Sacramento, we’re a blue state with an Alabama budget.

The reasons for that are now well known. With a two-thirds super-majority required in the state Constitution to pass a budget, the state’s permanent Republican minority has played a never-ending game of obstruction and extortion – demanding extraneous and irrelevant demands, even after Democrats take all tax increases off the table (including the popular ones like a tax on oil company profits.) Every year, Democrats in the state legislature have had to sell their progressive base down the river due to this dynamic.

In November, Prop 25 would be a start to break this impasse – by amending the Constitution to require a simple majority to pass a budget. But there would still be a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, and it’s clear that much of the state’s chronic revenue problems would still have need to be address. But after the horrific budget years of 2009 and 2010, why didn’t Democrats put it on the ballot in November 2008 – when Obama turnout would’ve helped it prevail?

Mayor Newsom’s Trump Card at City Hall

The Board of Supervisors Budget Committee did a good job this year restoring programs that Mayor Newsom had cut – helping us hold to next year, when the City’s fiscal picture will get worse. But despite details of waste in the Fire Department and a desire from progressive Supervisors to make appropriate cuts, how many unnecessary positions were ultimately taken out? None.

That’s because the Mayor holds a trump card in the City Charter – while the Supervisors “control the purse strings” by appropriating and de-appropriating funds, only the Mayor (as the chief executive) holds the power to spend or not spend money. We saw Newsom do this in the past – when the Board (against his will) decided to fund programs that he disagreed with.

As a result, the Supervisors can’t just slash the Mayor’s Press Office or waste in the Fire Department – because Newsom would retaliate by refusing to spend social service funds that the Board restored through the “add-back” process. The Budget Committee did vote to “civilianize” one Captain position in the Fire Department at its July 1st meeting. But after mandatory negotiations with the Mayor, that $160,000 position was restored back in the budget.

We also saw Charter Amendments – whose policy merits are separate and apart from the City budget – get thrown into the budget process, simply because Mayor Newsom did not appreciate them and wanted them gone. Knowing full well that no deal with the Mayor would mean add-back funds not spent, the Supervisors had to consider sacrificing them.

Gavin Newsom won’t be Mayor next year – and if he loses the Lieutenant Governor’s race, he will still leave office by January 2012. But this is a problem that will outlast any problems progressives have had with Newsom – as any Mayor in the future always holds the ultimate trump card to not spend money. Until we make this procedural amendment in the Charter, we will continue to be forced to make unfortunate choices at every budget season.