Citizen lawmaking is under attack as never before. A dozen states have made it more difficult for voters to place initiatives on the ballot, and the use of initiatives to impose term limits is leading angry legislators in the rest of the 24 states with citizen voting to contemplate further curbs. Lost in all the complaints is the fact that direct democracy often makes government function when legislative bodies are gridlocked.
The initiative process is taking heat from both left and right. George Will says citizen initiatives "are a legacy of an anti-conservative impulse–early 20th century populism" and urges the right to reject "a process that infuses public discourse with vulgarity and volatility." From the left, Peter Schrag’s new book, "Paradise Lost," claims that California "is now spending its scarce resources not through a comprehensible legislative process in which priorities are evaluated against one another but through a crazy quilt of ad hoc decisions that defies rational budgeting, intelligent policy formulation and civic comprehension."
What Messrs. Will and Schrag agree on is that initiatives cut against the notion of republican government. Both cite James Madison, who held that citizens should not decide issues, but instead should decide who will decide–namely, elected representatives in a deliberative body.
But from the time of the Magna Carta, the right of petition has grown alongside that of representative government–which is why most free nations allow for some form of direct democracy. The linguistic patchwork called Switzerland has governed itself admirably through citizen initiatives for centuries. In the U.S., citizens clearly value direct democracy. Last month, voters in Allegheny County, Pa., which includes Pittsburgh, approved a new county charter that includes the right of initiative.
In their current incarnation in the U.S., the ideas of representative democracy and the right of petition should be viewed as complementary, not antithetical. Even Madison wrote that "as the people are the only legitimate fountain of power . . . it seems strictly consonant to the republican theory to recur to the same original authority whenever it may be necessary to enlarge, diminish or new-model the power of government."
As a Californian, I can attest to the role citizen initiatives have played in bypassing an arrogant, self-absorbed legislature. Everyone knows about Proposition 13, which became law 20 years ago after legislators dithered while property taxes soared. It won 65% approval even though only four out of 120 state legislators endorsed it. Proposition 13 certainly has its flaws, but it has saved California taxpayers $228 billion, and its requirement that tax hikes be approved by two-thirds of legislators or vters has forced government to do a better job of justifying its revenue appetites.
Unfortunately, Proposition 13 didn’t cure the legislature of domination by special interests. The initiative process is "a legitimate remedy for legislative default," Gov. Pete Wilson told the New York Times. "A lot of the things that can’t get through the legislature have no problem winning public approval." One of Gov. Wilson’s predecessors, Democrat Jerry Brown, agrees. Now a candidate for mayor of Oakland, Mr. Brown is also pushing a November ballot initiative to create a "strong mayor" system for his city. "Consulting the people directly is one of the most legitimate expressions of self-government," he says.
Take three examples from just this year that demonstrate the value of the initiative process:
.California pioneered the use of bilingual education in the 1970s. But the statewide mandate imposing it expired in 1987 and was never renewed, because of the evidence that bilingual instruction simply doesn’t work. But well-paid bilingual teachers and Hispanic ideologues kept the system going until Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz forced an initiative abolishing it onto next Tuesday’s ballot.
This month the legislature finally passed an 11th-hour bill that would require local educators to measure and demonstrate that students are becoming fluent in English. Such a bill would once have been welcome, but Gov. Wilson declined to sign it given the almost certain passage of the Unz initiative.
.For years the number of charter schools–public schools that operate outside the normal maze of bureaucratic regulations–has been capped at 100 in California at the insistence of the powerful teachers unions. Nine months ago a group of business leaders called the Technology Network began pushing for an initiative to expand charter schools. The legislature finally paid attention, and crafted a compromise that gave TechNet most of what it wanted. The bill passed with large bipartisan majorities. In exchange, TechNet dropped plans to submit the signatures it had collected. "The key was access to the initiative," one TechNet leader told me. "Without that club in the closet, no reform would have passed.".For 50 years, California has imposed a 2% annual tax on a car’s market value, even though the money isn’t spent for transportation. The tax falls most heavily on the working poor, who need cars to get to work. But it took Assemblyman Tom McClintock’s plan for an initiative to abolish the tax to prompt Gov. Wilson to propose his own plan to cut it by 75%.
Liberals also have benefited from the initiative process. Bills to raise tobacco taxes couldn’t even get out of committee in the California Legislature. After some 60 failures, in 1988 advocates put the tax on the ballot. It passed easily. "The legislature just has an inability to deal with certain issues," says Gerald Meral of the Planning and Conservation League.
It is this record of citizen action that led two-thirds of Californians in a recent Field Poll to support expanding the power of initiative to the national level. And California isn’t the only state where the people have resolved issues the legislature refused to address. In neighboring Oregon, examples include giving women the vote, controlling pollution, redistricting the legislature, permitting assisted suicide and limiting property taxes.
Voters often exercise far more common sense than legislators. Those who fear demagogic appeals in initiative campaigns should tune into the U.S. Senate’s current debate on tobacco. Or consider: It was California’s governor and legislature that raised the state’s income tax on upper-income earners during the 1991 recession. By contrast, when unions placed a soak-the-rich initiative on the 1996 ballot, to keep the higher rate on the top 1.2% of income earners and direct the money to feel-good education programs, voters rejected the idea despite roughly equal spending on each side.
Notwithstanding brickbats from both left and right, the initiative process remains popular with voters. They want a final trump card over entrenched incumbents who often feel free to ignore voters. Maine’s Angus King, the nation’s only independent governor, has been on the losing end of some recent initiatives, but he defends the process. "It’s a valuable safety valve," he says. "It’s not always appropriate, but I’m glad it’s there."
Mr. Fund is a member of the Journal editorial board.