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DEMOCRACY? WHAT DEMOCRACY?

Just when it seemed New York State government might be about to consider the merits of democracy - open debate, public accountability and that sort of thing - along comes Joe Bruno and the State Senate to set matters back. It's the second time in a year that New York Republicans have behaved more like monarchs than leaders of a great American state.

Here's what happened. Late in January, the Republicans who control the Senate changed the rules by which that suspicious chamber operates, further limiting the power of Democrats to push a bill out of committee or force a floor vote. That authority gave the minority party a way to force Republicans to vote on matters they would prefer to avoid. Uncomfortable, no doubt, but so what? This is democratic government, not a country club.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno says the changes are simply a matter of streamlining procedures in the Senate, but this maneuver is transparent. Its intent is to clamp down on Democrats who had the nerve to make real contests of many races last November instead of simply accepting their status as a permanent minority.

In registering his protest, Senate Minority Leader Martin Connor noted that the Senate's 25 Democrats represent 40 percent of all New Yorkers - taxpayers whose representatives have effectively been muzzled. There is no defense for that in a state that was an incubator of this nation's liberty.

Unfortunately, this kind of display is nothing new in New York. The Assembly, where Democrats are in charge, similarly silences the Republican minority. But there, at least, there have been intimations of reforms - modest ones, to be sure, and only because Democrats last spring turned on their leader, Speaker Sheldon Silver. Still, there was movement there in the right direction. Now, we've got the Senate moving the wrong way.

Sad to say, it doesn't come as much of a surprise. Republicans in this state have already demonstrated their enthusiasm for suffocating political debate. Twice in four years they tried to rig their own presidential primary, hoping to prevent their own members from registering an honest opinion on who their nominee should be. If Republicans will behave in so politically violent a way to their own members, who can be surprised they would do it to Democrats?

Bruno and his followers have engaged in a vulgar display of pure political power, even if they tarted it up as a matter of efficiency. They are under pressure from some quarters to reverse themselves, and they should.

But, in one way, the Republicans' arrogance is a useful reminder of the value of our constitutional guarantees of freedom. If men and women like these senators are willing to disregard so cavalierly the requirements of democratic government, imagine what else they might do, if only they could.

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