Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Hammond's Albany Reformation

The NY Daily News' Bill Hammond unveils his own legislative reform ideas in this morning's paper-and seeks an almost total transvaluation of Albany's past legislative practices: "In his quest to become majority leader of the state Senate, Queens Democrat Malcolm Smith is talking to the wrong people. He should tell the renegade Democrats known as the "three amigos" - who have been shaking him down in exchange for their support - to take a hike. Instead, he'd be better off reaching out to his "enemigos," the 29 Republicans on the other side of the aisle. He should invite open-minded GOP senators to join Democrats in running the Senate in truly bipartisan fashion, as co-equal partners in a small-d democratic legislative process."

Whatever the moral arguments in favor of this approach-and how oxymoronic is that conception?-it would leave the Democratic majority in a much more weakened state than any deal with the three amigos could ever do: "This would mean breaking with generations of bitterly partisan tradition in Albany. It would mean angering many fellow Democrats - who have suffered under the thumb of Republican majorities for more than four decades and would desperately like to return the favor."

Does Hammond think that Malcolm's Democratic colleagues would support this surrender of power any more than they did when he crafted the first deal with the amigos? That being said, and as we have pointed out, there is still plenty of opportunities for reform-short of simply giving away the store; and Hammond hits on a number of the possibilities: "And the committee system - which is the lifeblood of real legislatures, like the U.S. Congress - should be revitalized and given the independence and authority to truly debate and shape legislation. Committee memberships should reflect the overall breakdown of the Senate, with Democrats holding only a slight majority. Rules should be changed to make it easier for bipartisan coalitions to force public debates and votes on controversial bills."

There is, however, still a place for partisanship-and elections do have consequences. And there really isn't any need for Smith to hand over the reins to the other side; especially when bipartisan negotiation will be the rule rather than the exception. This doesn't have to be engineered when it will emerge organically: "...Smith cannot live by Democratic votes alone. He cannot rely on all 32 of his party members' votes when a tough issue comes to the floor - and there will be many, starting with how to close the unprecedented $15 billion hole in the state budget."

With leadership comes responsibility, and in 2010 voters will be asked to judge how well the legislature responded to the fiscal crisis. If Smith is given the reins, he and his Democratic colleagues will be judged on the results-even if there is a greater degree of bipartisan cooperation. As a result, it behooves Smith and his fellow Dems to govern responsibly, and to give the voters of New York a reason to return them to power in two years.