Monday, April 24, 2017

The Constitutional Convention Gambit

Neil Abramson is the Chariman of the Louisiana House Ways and Means Committee. His charge there is to guide potential solutions to the state's ongoing budget impasse through the legislative process. For example, this week, Ways and Means is conducting hearings on the Commercial Activity Tax proposal.  The CAT is central to the governor's fiscal program this session.  But because its most recent form is unlikely to raise anything like the amount of revenue the governor has targeted, there will be plenty of work for the committee if it wants to tweak the thing into shape.

It's uncomfortable for Abramson, though, because this puts him squarely in the middle of a fight between the Republicans who gave him the chairmanship and a governor who is in the same party as he is. (It's a long story.)  Tax reform is a major priority for John Bel Edwards this year.  But with Republicans already eyeing the next election cycle, they're less inclined to be of any help to him with every passing session.

So it's a difficult job; the kind of job a smart politician always finds a way to avoid doing. Or at least, the smart ones find a way to avoid blame if a thing gets done wrong.   Neil, as it turns out, is a pretty smart politician. His preferred solution is to have the legislature punt the whole thing to a (theoretical) constitutional convention instead.
When asked which plan or approach he favors, Ways and Means Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, has been telling colleagues that he prefers his own plan, which includes just one bill—his House Bill 456 to call a limited constitutional convention.
We've just spent several months conducting hearings on credits and exemptions, waiting on recommendations from a fiscal reform task force, and figuring out just what a Commercial Activity Tax is and how it might work. (Or how it might not work, as the case may be.) Thanks, but no thanks, says Neil. Better to just blow the whole thing up and start over.  For someone who cultivates a moderate-conservative reputation, that's kind of a radical step.

To be fair, Abramson isn't alone here.  Clancy DuBos is also highly enthusiastic. In a recent op-ed Clancy suggests a convention may be the only solution to legislative "gridlock."
Given the gridlock between the Republican-controlled House and Gov. John Bel Edwards, the prospects for long-range, comprehensive fiscal reform are dim. Heck, it would take a minor miracle to get a small gasoline tax hike out of the House, even though a clear majority of Louisiana voters support that idea as a means of putting more money into the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

That’s one reason why state Rep. Neil Abramson’s bill to convene a limited-purpose constitutional convention deserves serious consideration. If lawmakers can’t even agree on the simple things, maybe a constitutional convention can address the big picture. Abramson doesn’t quite frame his argument that way, but that’s the reality.
But this doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense.  Clancy doesn't explain, for instance, what sort of gridlock busting magic the convention delegates might posses that the legislators lack. Abramson's bill would elect the delegates from the existing House districts.  Unless they are specifically barred from serving there, it's possible the House Reps themselves could end up being most of the delegates. And, of course, the same lobbying interests will exert as much influence at a convention as they would at any legislative session.  So whatever the venue, we're essentially left with the same set of people (or close to it) having the same arguments over the same issues. The only difference, really, is the convention delegates, serving only one term in office as it were, wouldn't be accountable to the voters in any meaningful way.  Even if that somehow does help lessen the "gridlock," is it really what we want?

For his part, Abramson isn't actually making this claim. He was nice enough to talk to us a bit about it on Twitter the other day. There, he emphasized the process by which a convention could rewrite fiscal parameters all at once rather than through the multi-step process of passing laws and amendments.

While Neil's argument has the advantage of being more grounded in reality, it still isn't much more convincing that Clancy's.  Each asks us to assume that we can bypass the political arguments around fiscal policy.  Unfortunately there are fights that need to be fought one way or another.  Changing the rules of the game can only do so much as long as the players and their motivations are the same.   Better to just haggle it all out in the most democratically accountable way that is practical. And I'm not convinced a constitutional convention is best in that regard.

No comments: