Politics

A Call to Order

People complained for decades that the New York State Senate was dysfunctional. But that was before it shut down altogether. In April, a special committee...
by | July 31, 2009
 

People complained for decades that the New York State Senate was dysfunctional. But that was before it shut down altogether.

In April, a special committee put forward a set of recommendations designed to make the chamber operate in a more open fashion. Its report called for changes in the committee system--reducing the number of committees while vastly expanding their importance in shaping legislation. Typically, the bill-writing has reflected the handiwork of the majority's leaders alone. "If you don't have a committee system that's robust," says Grant Reeher, a political scientist at Syracuse University, "it's tough to find another place to get that work done in the legislature."

Some of the special committee's suggestions were even more basic, such as requiring senators to be physically present when they cast a vote. When findings as obvious as this came out, it elicited two types of reactions. First, that the recommendations didn't go nearly far enough. And second, that they still didn't stand a chance of passing in the notoriously anti-democratic chamber.

But then the Senate came to a full and complete stop. A series of party switches left the chamber tied up for a month, leaving no one in charge. The two caucuses refused even to meet in the same place, until ordered to do so by a judge. Finally, one of the party switchers switched again, putting the Democrats back in charge.

Democrats, who had been shut out of power since 1965, had long called for reform measures. Naturally, once they attained power--they won a fragile two-seat majority in last fall's elections--they forgot all about it. "Reform is a mantra until one gets into power," says Douglas Muzzio, a Baruch College public affairs professor. "Then one forgets it."

But the huge embarrassment caused by the chamber's shutdown has forced their hand. They dusted off the special committee's report and passed most of its recommendations in July--along with a nod to changes in earmarking rules adopted by Republicans during their brief return to control in June.

The reforms amount to baby steps. They amount to nothing as comprehensive as campaign finance and ethics rules adopted in some other states in recent years. But the fact remains that what Muzzio calls "this crazy twilight-zone soap opera," which brought Albany to a standstill this summer and made the state into a national laughingstock, has resulted in internal reforms that had always seemed unattainable.

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