Management & Labor

The Albany Triopoly

In New York, it's the governor, the Assembly speaker and the Senate president who decide all the state's crucial policy questions.
by | November 2006
 

"Three men in a room." It sounds like the beginning of a nursery rhyme, or one of those brainteaser children's riddles.

And in fact, the phrase does refer to something rather childish. But it's not a rhyme or a riddle. As New Yorkers know all too well, it's a system of government in which three individuals--the governor, the Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader--get to lock the door and decide the state's crucial public policy questions.

Triopoly politics isn't news to anyone who frequents the state capitol in Albany. "Three men in a room" has taken on cliche status; everybody understands how the system works. What's remarkable is how long it has endured, through decades in which state politics virtually everywhere else has gone through whole cycles of change. But now comes the most interesting question of all. Will the system survive a new administration and a governor who has promised a full-fledged housecleaning next January?

Like most good cliches, "three men in a room" contains a certain amount of exaggeration. The triumvirate of the past decade isn't exactly a close-knit cabal. Republican Governor George Pataki, Democratic Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno don't spend large amounts of time closeted together; they don't even like each other. Staff does most of the negotiating. And it would be excessive to argue that nobody besides the big three gets to play in the game. The decisions made in private reflect, at least in part, the same array of bureaucratic forces and interest groups that influence the decisions of any state government.

But even with disclaimers added, the fact remains that many would-be decision makers with plausible claims to leadership are simply frozen out in New York. And that includes most of the 150 assemblymen and 62 senators. There are more than 30 committees in the New York legislature, but they have long been largely irrelevant. Few public hearings are held even on important pieces of legislation. Bills favored by one of the big three are introduced with little discussion or explanation and then zip through to enactment in a matter of days. It is all but unheard of for any bill brought to the floor to be defeated, or even amended. Years go by without a single amendment being approved on the floor in either chamber.

Most legislators in Albany make their peace with the system. They are paid good salaries, are treated deferentially by capitol minions, and if they are well liked--or politically vulnerable--they are given juicy projects to take back to their districts at the end of the session.

For some of the more ambitious among them, however, serving as a legislator in New York is a highly frustrating experience. One of the most frustrated in recent years was Seymour Lachman, a Democrat who served as president of the New York City school board and then won a state Senate seat in Brooklyn in 1994. Lachman spent 10 years in the Senate complaining about being a pampered drone, then retired, and has now written a book about the whole situation entitled Three Men in a Room.

Lachman doesn't hold anything back. He says he and his colleagues were essentially "human rubber stamps," unable to "even hold a bit part when it comes to important decisions… The leadership ran the place much like the presidium of the Soviet regime."

If the only consequence of "three men in a room" were the frustration of a few dozen legislators such as Lachman, it wouldn't be a tragedy. But there are adverse consequences far beyond the thwarting of individual ambition.

There is, for example, the long history of late budgets. In every year from 1985 to 2005, the governor and legislature missed their April deadline for budget completion, forcing an annual ritual of "spring borrowing" to meet short-term fiscal needs that ended up costing billions of dollars. In 1990 the leaders had to create a Local Government Assistance Corporation to issue bonds that prevented a shutdown in aid to communities around the state.

For the past two years, budgets have made it to enactment by a technically punctual date, with accompanying fanfare, but these were cosmetic triumphs: Both times, major disputes continued long past the signing ceremony. In 2006, it was June 23 before the differences were worked out.

Besides the billions of dollars in extra spending forced by fiscal tardiness, there are the billions whose trajectory no one can really follow. When New York's budgets eventually reach final form, they are laced with loosely described spending items that appear to benefit a particular legislator or interest group but are virtually impossible to track with any precision. Mysterious appropriations are not unique to the Empire State; they exist, in one form or another, in every legislature in the country. But in New York, the absence of fiscal scrutiny by the media, the public or even rank-and-file legislators makes the whole situation worse.

In a much larger sense, there is the depressing fact that New York, a fountain of new governmental ideas and creative programs for most of the 20th century, has produced very little innovative or reformist public policy since the days of Republican Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller in the 1960s.

Mario Cuomo served 12 years as governor, from 1983 to 1995, and while he was a figure of unquestioned eloquence and stature in the national Democratic Party, it's not easy to think of a major policy associated with his name. Pataki, Cuomo's three-term Republican successor, has been a powerful governor in a way: He has won more than his share of battles with legislative leaders, his clout enhanced by a state supreme court decision in 2004 enhancing the scope of his veto authority--but when he retires at the end of this year, it will be as difficult to pin down his legacy as it has been for Cuomo. It cannot be a coincidence that the decline of New York as a leader in governmental innovation has occurred during the same years that triopoly was entrenching itself in Albany.

Concentrated power hasn't been the only problem; divided power has been a problem as well. The governorship has passed back and forth between the parties over the past generation, but legislative control has been frozen in place: Republicans have controlled the Senate since 1966; Democrats the Assembly since 1974. Districts have been drawn and redrawn to preserve those bastions of power.

Division of control on a seemingly permanent basis has prevented governors of both parties from enacting any consistent legislative program, and encouraged the legislative leaders to argue over the minutiae of targeted spending programs and subsidies aimed at helping individual members in their districts and preserving the existing balance of power.

Handing government over to a single party might not have been the answer; certainly Lachman doesn't think so. "It didn't really matter," he writes, "whether Democrats or Republicans controlled Albany now or in the future, because the place was too rotten at its core." On the other hand, it's hard to escape the conclusion that ossified divided power has made things worse instead of better.

It's not that there haven't been serious reform efforts over the years. Good-government groups have been denouncing the inequities of "three men in a room" almost since the system developed. In 2004, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University produced a massive report detailing the results of the system and calling Albany the "most dysfunctional" state government in the country. This year, a growing cadre of candidates ran for office on a "Fix Albany" platform.

At times, the leaders themselves have taken halting steps toward change. In 1998, Speaker Silver allowed conference committees meeting to resolve Assembly-Senate legislative differences to hold their sessions in public--but Pataki signaled his displeasure by vetoing most of the bills produced by those sessions, and the practice was quickly abandoned. In 2005, the two chambers agreed on a bill modestly expanding the amount of information lobbyists were required to disclose. But for every step forward, there has been an equal step back: The same year that the lobby-disclosure bill became law, the Senate passed a resolution making it even easier for the Senate president to impose unilateral rules changes than it had been before.

And so Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, as he prepares to take over as governor in January, confronts an interesting dilemma. There's no question that the system as it currently operates offers him enormous power--when he wants to get his way with the legislature, he will usually be able to do it. But in the end, it will be the power to win small victories in an essentially unproductive game. To make a mark beyond that--to become a governor in the mold of Rockefeller or Alfred E. Smith, and restore New York to its role as an innovator in American government--he may have to try something risky: pressure the legislature into accepting a more open process that subjects fiscal and policy decisions to genuine public scrutiny.

During his campaign, Spitzer suggested that he might be prepared to do this. He professed a "willingness to change a system that is broken." Of course, others have made similar commitments and failed dismally. There will be no shortage of people telling the new governor that the system is impregnable and can't be dismantled. On the other hand, that's what they used to say about the Berlin Wall.Once a fountain of creativity, New York has produced little innovative policy since the Rockefeller administration in the 1960s.

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