California May Be the Best and Only Hope for Democrats


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Democratic senators from states won by President Donald Trump in 2016 have vowed not to end the legislative filibuster, making it unlikely the party will be able to accomplish much even if it wins back the White House and Senate next year.

That gives added weight to what California is doing as it continues to pass legislation that can ripple across the nation. Democrats may discover that using California as a vehicle for a their agenda nationwide may be their best hope of getting anything done.

Showing how hard it will be to pass progressive legislation in the next Congress isn't difficult. For one, Trump -- at this point -- stands a fair chance of winning re-election. But even if Democrats win the White House, they will have an uphill climb in the Senate. They need to flip three seats to gain control, and that's assuming they don't lose any of their own, including Doug Jones in deep-red Alabama. At best, Democrats could flip seats in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Maine, plus perhaps a surprise hold in Alabama or a flip in challenging states like Iowa, Georgia or Texas. That would bring them to 50 or 51 seats. But Democrats would still be hamstrung by the legislative filibuster, as well as the voting tendencies of senators from West Virginia and Montana who probably would oppose grand agenda items like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal.

Once that reality sets in for progressives, they'll be looking for an outlet to channel the energy now focused on the presidential campaigns of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. The California legislature would be a good place to start.

California is important not just because Democrats have supermajorities in the state legislature, or because it's a state with a huge economy, but because corporations and businesses are increasingly national or global in scope. If businesses feel compelled to play by progressive rules in California, they may decide to operate their businesses the same way everywhere. A recent example is California's passage of a law allowing college athletes to get paid for the use of their name, image and likeness. If a small state like Delaware had passed such a law, maybe the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which sets rules for student athletes, could strike back or even ignore it. But California is too large a market for that. Fearing that California universities would have a leg up in recruiting student athletes, other states started introducing similar legislation. Under growing pressure, the NCAA is taking steps to address the issue. Essentially, a California law is changing conditions for college athletes nationwide.

Higher minimum wages and the corporate response to them are another area with nationwide ripples. In April 2016, California adopted a law that would raise the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022. Some other states have followed suit. In theory, companies could pick and choose how they operate in different states based on state-specific minimum wage laws. But in response, some large companies have increased their minimum wage levels nationwide. Walmart, for instance, raised its pay floor to $11 an hour in January 2018 -- 10 days after California's minimum wage rose to the same level.

Some retailers have responded to California's higher pay scale by stepping up efforts to install self-checkout machines and save on labor costs. But not just in California. For example, in Georgia, where I live, retailers have been installing the machines even though the state hasn't increased its minimum wage of $5.15 an hour in more than 15 years. For large corporations, it makes sense to install them everywhere -- not just in one state -- to streamline operations.

Perhaps a preview of the bigger fights to come can be found in California's efforts to set vehicle emissions standards that are tougher than national requirements. Here, a similar logic for companies applies. If automakers want to sell in California -- and most do -- it makes more sense to build vehicles that all comply with state regulations rather than producing lower-emission one for California and higher-emission one for the rest of the country. It's unclear how courts will rule on this and similar fights between California and the federal government, but we should expect more of these standoffs in the years to come, particularly if Trump wins re-election.

In a way, progressives would be adopting the same tactics that China used when it put pressure on the National Basketball Association, threatening to limit the league's business opportunities in the country after a Houston Rockets team official made comments supporting Hong Kong's protesters. In a global economy, market size and power tend to dictate cultural and political power. Although progressives are unlikely to get much of what they want in Washington in 2021 or beyond, regardless of the election outcome there's untapped potential for them in California.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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