“New York State’s legislative process is broken.”
– 2004 report by the Brennan Center for Justice
“I’m going to be president of the Senate. I’m going to be majority leader. I’m going to control everything. I’m going to control who gets on what committees, what legislation goes to the floor, what legislation comes through committees, the budget, everything.”
– Senate leader Dean Skelos, now charged with corruption, in a 2015 telephone conversation with his son Adam, also charged, as recorded by the FBI
It’s not just a problem of Dean Skelos or even former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver – though, if they are guilty of the felonies of which they have been accused, each clearly is a severe problem. More than that, though, they are also the product of a dysfunctional system that invites corruption and, given New York’s sordid political history, is probably designed to do just that.
In fact, it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise, since the Brennan Center, in its groundbreaking 2004 report, documented in clear and irrefutable detail how the New York State Legislature is a rigged game. The report exposed the Legislature for the democratic fraud that it is, yet its leaders did almost nothing to change it, while rank-and-file lawmakers cheerfully went along.
Both the Senate and Assembly were organized just as Skelos described in the self-admiring – and wiretapped – conversation he had with his son. The leaders decide who controls the committees and their funding. The leaders decide what measures come to a floor vote, thus ensuring their passage, and they decide which will be buried. There is no mechanism for the average legislator, should he or she have the nerve, to attempt to force a vote. There is, in that regard, no democracy. Each chamber is the fiefdom of its leader and that, plainly, is how the leaders like it.
But it’s worse than merely anti-democratic. It also tills the soil for conduct that is at least unethical and too often criminal. Consider another wiretapped conversation that helped to produce this week’s charges from the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. In February, after Silver’s indictment and as reports of a federal investigation into Skelos were spreading, the senator, in one call intercepted by the FBI, warned his son to cancel a meeting with other senators regarding legislation meant to benefit his client. “Right now, we are in dangerous times, Adam,” the senator is quoted as saying. Yes, they were, and they were times produced, in part, by a morbid culture of concentrated power.
That was only one of the reasons the Brennan Center concluded that the New York State Legislature was the country’s most dysfunctional. Even 11 years later, its 2004 recommendations (bit.ly/1DQE8XU) remain largely unmet. The problems it cited included a dysfunctional committee system, insufficient debate, lack of opportunity to file amendments, inadequate review of legislation, few conference committees and high costs and inefficiency.
Why would any self-respecting senator or Assembly member tolerate a system such as that? Only one reason exists: They are cowed by it, and content to let leaders such as Skelos and Silver have their heads in return for their tender mercies. But surely now is the time for this to change.
Skelos cannot remain in his leadership post any more than Silver could. Senators may be slow, but their instinct for survival will eventually kick in. As they consider who should lead them, they should insist on rule changes that will benefit the New Yorkers they represent while also diminishing the chances that their new leader will be tempted by unwholesome authority whose main purpose is to grease the wheels of greed.
It may already be too late for the Assembly, but it isn’t for the Senate. Members should insist on rules that empower them, that open the legislative windows to the breeze of new ideas, that recognize the damage caused by the system that has led three recent Senate leaders into crisis.
And while they are at it, they should also write a rule that requires any leader to leave that post upon felony indictment. It doesn’t seem too much to ask and it will save the chicken-hearts of the chamber from the apparently difficult task of doing the right thing.
Of course, they can also do nothing and in so doing, help the state economy by creating a full-employment policy for the office of the U.S. attorney.