Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Senate Reformation

The road to reform is never easy, especially when it involves elected officials ceding some of their authority to their political adversaries. So it's really no surprise, that senate Dems are talking about, "a path to reform," rather than some immediate shake up of the traditional ways that the body has done its business. As the NY Times opines this morning: "New York Democrats have been trumpeting the need for reform in state government for decades. Only one thing stood in their way, they argued: they needed control of lawmaking in Albany. Now they have that control — a Democratic governor plus Democratic majorities in both branches of the State Legislature. And, guess what? Instead of reform, Democrats are promising something called the “path to reform.” In other words, once again, the real thing is somewhere down the road and still out of reach."

Naturally, Republicans aren't thrilled: "This proposal does not go far enough,” said George H. Winner Jr., a Republican who represents southern central New York. “Right off, we’re starting on the wrong foot.” Republicans offered an amendment to require equal resources for all senators, an issue that has become a major source of anxiety for the Republicans, who will receive less money to run their offices than they did when they were in the majority. The irony of the Republicans’ complaints was not lost on some Democrats, who noted that they had complained for years that they lacked the resources to purchase even small items like office supplies."

But some of the proposed changes are indeed good ones: "In perhaps the most significant change, Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, D-Queens, said he would provide a base budget of $350,000 to each senator, regardless of party affiliation. Historically, budgets of Senate and Assembly members have been determined by each conference leader, effectively a way to reward or punish behavior of individual legislators. Last year, Senate majority members were given an average budget of just under $446,000; Senate minority members were given an average of $274,000 each."

And in the matter of legislation, there will be a bit more of a bipartisan balance. As the Times points out: "The changes approved on Monday included provisions that give minority senators more authority to challenge the majority and play a larger role in the legislative process. The changes would also strengthen the roles of Senate committees. Under previous rules, senators in the majority party could refuse to allow minority senators to sign on as co-sponsors of legislation. But under the new rules, any senator can co-sponsor any bill."

And with the narrow majority that the Democrats hold, this is not insignificant-since all legislation will likely be looking for bipartisan support to insure passage: "Individual senators will also have more leverage to force a floor vote on legislation that has stalled in committee. Under the old rules, senators in the minority had very limited recourse if the majority had blocked a bill of theirs. They could call for a floor vote on the bill, but the “no” votes were never recorded, and debate was strictly limited. But under the new rules, full debate will be allowed and all votes will be recorded."

Much of this is necessary if the legislature is going to be able to overcome its well deserved reputation for dysfunction. But even more important will be substance-how well the body responds to the fiscal challenges. If the public perception is more of the same, than the majority party may well be vulnerable to the Republican challenge in 2010; a repeat of what happened over forty years ago.