We take democracy too far

For the Unless Oregonians experience a large change of heart, polls indicate that Measure 30 will fall to defeat today, following close on the heels of the recent defeat of its tax-increase predecessor, Measure 28.
But in reality, while the measure itself is of the utmost importance to Oregonians who would be adversely affected by cuts, the most important issue is not “to tax or not to tax,” but instead: Should we as voters have the direct ability to reverse legislative decisions?
Measure 30 is on the ballot as a citizen referendum in response to House Bill 2152; the Legislature came to a compromise after weeks of special sessions last year and passed HB 2152, an $800 million temporary income tax surcharge.
By gathering signatures from 5 percent of the people who voted in the 2002 gubernatorial race, Oregon Citizens for a Sound Economy was able to place the tax increase on the ballot, in effect asking, “Do we agree with what our representatives have done?”
But a system that allows us to challenge every action of our legislators is fundamentally flawed.
We have the ability to ask the aforementioned question at each election, but we should not be able to act whenever we feel that our elected officials aren’t saying what we want them to say.
Oregon should not, in fact, have a referendum system that allows citizens to bring to a direct vote the legislative decisions of the Oregon Legislature. That is not the role of the electorate in our representative system.

Let them represent us

We have taken the direct democracy experiment too far. Despite the Oregonian emphasis on direct democracy in the past decades, when the use of the initiative system has soared, confidence in our government has plummeted.
If we are trying to fix a supposedly broken system, but we approve of it less and less as we get more involved, that does not say that the system is broken. It is saying that our alternatives are not the complete answer.
Our system of electing representatives was and still is the fundamental form of decision-making in Oregon. When we elect politicians, we do so with the understanding that they can represent in two ways — neither one superior to the other.
First, they may try to represent their constituents’ views as exactly as possible — a feat that is nigh impossible in most areas, where constituents are divided over many issues.
Or representatives can try to make decisions that they believe are best for their constituents.
Regardless of which approach we personally approve of, we have implicitly agreed to live under the decisions made by our legislators.
The referendum process allowed in Oregon undermines the representative system, allowing Oregonians — often led today by the same special interests that our initiative/referendum system was designed to combat — to overturn the decisions of our legislators.
The referendum system allows an angry and not always well-informed minority or majority to cry, “Guilty!” the moment a difficult legislative decision is made.
In the case of Measure 30, the length of debate over the issue made it clear how difficult a decision it was, but we must realize that it was a decision made after consideration to the long-term status of Oregon.
The average voter does not have the knowledge or the experience to be able to make political decisions for the long term; we are generally having a tough enough time with the short term right now to think to the future.
It is our prerogative to be selfish, but we can’t then assume that we know what is better for Oregon than our elected representatives.
The citizen referendum historically has been used much less often than the citizen initiative — this will be the fifth citizen referendum on the ballot since 1996, and the first of real significance — but after its use in such a high-profile political debate, it is naive to think that it won’t be utilized with greater frequency.

A simplistic fix

Direct democracy has grown to be seen by many in Oregon as the panacea to all evils. The purity of the peoples’ intentions, the theory goes, will overcome the corruption of our politicians.
No matter how noble the intentions, though, practicality brings this idea to a screeching halt. The average voter, however well-intentioned, does not have the degree of knowledge or experience necessary to consistently make the informed policy decisions that we expect of our legislators.
We hear today that voters are tired of the endless politicking and special elections, another indication that the referendum is a step in the wrong direction. By increasing the complexity of what was once considered a simple system, we run the risk of chasing voters away.
Representative and direct democracy are two variations on the same theme and are quite capable of coexistence.
But when we elect men and women such as Rep. Max Williams, R-Tigard, or Sen. Kate Brown, D-Portland, to office, we are placing our trust in them and the system. Politicians are held accountable for their actions during election years, and should only be held accountable at those times.
If we interfere with individual decision-making, we will be engaging in a degree of micromanaging that no worker would tolerate in any profession.
There is no panacea to cure the evils of our system — we are living with the “best of the worst,” in Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted phrasing.
The system of representative democracy is still our best option — but to let it work as intended, we must not interfere with the ability of our legislators to make the decisions that they have been elected to make.
In past decades, we trusted men such as U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, land-use pioneer state Sen. Hector McPherson and others to lead our state.
Politicians are not fundamentally different today, and they can still make the system work. But for them to be able to do so, we must cut back on the second-guessing and invest in a little trust.
If the current trend continues, there won’t be anyone willing to make the difficult decisions that we have historically entrusted to our legislators.

Brian Wagner, a sophomore at Columbia University in New York, attended Grant High School, where he wrote for the school paper, The Grantonian. His family lives in Northeast Portland. Contact him at brian.wagner@columbia.edu.