Fixing the Two-Man Legislature

New York Times, June 18, 1997
One of the more positive results of the ongoing drama over New York State's rent control laws is the attention it has focused on the workings of the State Legislature. Taxpayers who followed the story may have noticed that while they have been supporting a full complement of 150 Assembly members and 61 state senators, the legislative process seemed to involve only two people.

The Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, a Republican, and the Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, negotiated the rent agreement with Gov. George Pataki while the rank-and-file waited to be told what to do. Yet the process took almost as long as if every member had had to be polled, cajoled and individually brought into line. In the end, the leaders reached a compromise that any well-functioning legislature could have worked out easily.

But in New York, all other serious work has been at a standstill since last winter. The state budget is two months overdue and the Legislature has not even agreed on how much money there is to spend. Welfare reform has not been mentioned, and the state has only a few weeks until the deadline for getting into compliance with the new Federal laws.

Legislatures run by strong party leaders can be both democratic and efficient. But New York has all the disadvantages of that system and none of the advantages. Instead of imposing a discipline that requires lawmakers to come to grips with difficult issues, New York's leaders practice a kind of brinkmanship in which the two chambers march in sterile lockstep toward a single last-minute Big Deal. Mr. Silver and Mr. Bruno negotiate everything of importance at once in a series of trade-offs that have less to do with the state's general good than with upstate vs. downstate politics and the desires of special-interest campaign contributors. That only a tiny number of people have any real power makes Albany a lobbyist's dream, but a nightmare for anyone attempting to force consideration of an issue that either of the two men who "count" regards as undesirable.

Rank-and-file legislators, who should be encouraged to work together to solve the state's problems, are educated instead in the pure politics of avoiding responsibility and holding their tongues in return for near-certain re-election. The legislative committees are moribund. Floor debates are meaningless. All discussions of any import take place behind closed doors.

It will take more than a few days of scrutiny to change the way Albany operates. Thanks to gerrymandering, the Assembly and Senate are each permanently under the control of a different party, dedicated to blaming the other side for everything that goes wrong. Any real reform would have to begin with an impartial redistricting that would turn state legislative elections into something more than a meaningless fall ritual. (In the last election, only one seat in the 150-member Assembly changed parties.) After the next census, every New York group concerned with good government should join in a bipartisan legal battle to make sure the legislators are no longer permitted to draw their own district boundaries.

In the meantime, committees should be required to hold public hearings around the state on all important legislation up for consideration. They should also be required to file written reports on every bill they approve. The issues on which the Assembly and Senate disagree should be sent to conference committees. Voters should make it clear they will protest any effort by the legislators to pass their long-sought pay raise until there have been some changes in the way the system works.