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The Senate Looks at How It Operates

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union
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The Senate Looks at How It Operates

With their majority finally solidified, the State Senate Democrats last week passed rules changes, which they say, are designed to create more legislative transparency and to balance the power rift between the majority and the minority. Even though the Democrats had moved on reform issues after years of pleading for the same courtesy from the Republican leadership, their actions were greeted with derision by some and a tempered optimism by others.

The changes reverse rules instituted by the Republicans in 2001. Good government groups like the Brennan Center for Justice hope that such amendments will lead to more transparency in the Senate, give the public more input into the legislative process and allow members of both the majority and minority to freely propose and debate legislation.

What the Rules Do

One of the new changes will allow any senator to co-sponsor a bill without permission from the author. Previously, majority senators could prohibit members of the minority from being co-sponsors of their legislation.

Another change will allow senators to file "motions of discharge" to force bills out of committee after 20 days. Previously senators would have to wait 60 days. The longer waiting period allowed the majority to easily block a bill sponsored by the minority by keeping it in committee. The minority could ask for a floor vote, but votes against allowing the legislation to move forward were not a matter of public record.

The rules changes also promote the use of technologies such as the Internet to give the public greater access to the legislative process.

These changes will all expire at the end of the year and will likely be replaced by changes recommend by the newly established Senate bipartisan temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform. The committee will have 90 days to hold hearings and make recommendations on rules changes.

Good government groups have said that, while they would have liked more aggressive action, they are happy that reforms were made and are optimistically awaiting the recommendations of the temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform.

Sen. Daniel Squadron, who campaigned on reform issues, said, "I am pleased we have made real changes. It might not be everything but it is a real start."

Republicans called the Democrats' proposals weak and demanded more drastic changes to balance power. "This proposal does not go far enough. Right off we're starting on the wrong foot." Sen. George H. Winner Jr. told the New York Times

Some Democrats could not help but giggle. One Democratic senator described the Republican's change of heart as "a convenient conversion," and the "height of political theater and cynicism." "At least we have put the ball on the field," the senator said. Republicans had moved on rules changes in the past. An amendment in 2005 left Democrats displeased.

Equal Treatment?

Republicans have made a fuss over amount of money they will receive to run and staff their offices. They have been pushing legislation that would require equal resources for every legislator. Majority Leader Malcolm Smith responded to the complaints on Monday by guaranteeing that every senator would have a budget of at least $350,000. During the years of Republican control, some Democratic senators were allocated less than $300,000. One staffer said his office never got more than $350,000, and he knew of senators who didn't get $200,000. "In New York City," said the staffer, "that meant two staffers."

The treatment they received from the Republican majority remains fresh in the minds of Democratic senators and their staffers. They don't need to think back far to remember inconveniences like having simple supply orders -- for items from toilet paper to Styrofoam cups to furniture and paper -- take weeks to arrive, or making do on a budget one quarter the size of their Republican counterparts. They can remind themselves of bigger issues such as being effectively powerless to challenge the majority party on legislation or having their mailings to constituents censored.

Some Democratic staffers take a bit of satisfaction in seeing the new minority in their old shoes. One called the Democrats' treatment at the hands of the Republican majority "insulting and repressive." And yet he said he fully expected the new majority to aggressively pursue rules changes -- to increase the ability for the minority to introduce and challenge legislation and to create more transparency in the legislative process.

Another Democratic staffer said the new majority has no reason not to "do what is right." A number of staffers pointed out that, while the rules became more "repressive" as Republicans began to lose their majority over the past decade, the Democrats feel they are in a solid position with control of the Senate, Assembly and governor's mansion. As one put it, "We don't have to play those games."

Hoping For More

While good government groups are pleased with the changes, in some cases they hope to see more decisive action. One activist said, "The fact that the Democrats didn't have a leader until last Wednesday had a major impact. They were scrambling. They didn't have an agreement in place to do anything more aggressive."

They are now looking to the temporary committee on rules. The Brennan Center, Common Cause, the Empire Center for New York State Policy, the League of Women Voters, and New York Public Interest Research Group released a joint memo asking for language that would authorize the temporary committee to reflect five specific issues:

--strengthening standing committees by granting them greater independence;

--allowing individual members to introduce legislation on the floor

--creating opportunity for adequate review of proposed bills;

--providing members with sufficient resources to fund their office and research legislation; and

-- making legislative records immediately available to the public on the Internet.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause, said she feels confident the Democratic majority will address these issues, and noted that a number of members of the majority have "spontaneously expressed their deep interest in reform."

Tempered Expectations

The list of members named to the rules and administration reform committee gives some reform proponents hope, as it includes a number of senators known for their commitment to rules changes. The committee is co-chaired by Democratic Sen. David Valesky and Republican Sen. John Bonacic. As of press time the others are Squadron, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Jeff Klein, Jose Serrano and Liz Krueger. All but Stewart-Cousins, who is from Westchester, represent New York City districts. Minority Leader Dean Skelos will sit on the committee along with fellow Republican Senators Joe Griffo and George Winner.

However, other issues could interfere with the temporary committee. As Squadron pointed out, "Ninety days during the biggest budget season is not a lot of time."

Meanwhile, Krueger may not remain on the committee. According to several sources, she thinks her work as vice chair of the Finance Committee might interfere with her ability to play an active role on the reform committee and so she has asked to be replaced. An official announcement will likely be made in the near future.

Krueger's absence would concerns activists, as she has consistently been one of the most outspoken members of the Senate on the issue of rules reform. Krueger filed a lawsuit against the majority over alleged censorship in 2006. According to Krueger and co-plaintiff Republican Assemblyman Thomas Kirwan, then Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver censored outgoing constituent mailings-making it impossible for members of the minority party to criticize the majority.

Lerner said that while a number of members of the temporary committee are strong advocates for reform, "I think her [Krueger's] colleagues would agree she has spent the most time delving into the issue."

Beyond the Committee

Of greater concern to many advocates, though, are issues beyond the purview of the committee including campaign finance reform, redistricting and the way elections are held. Some insiders said say they expect the Senate to tackle those issues after the budget issue is addressed.

Lerner said she has one challenge for the committee on reform as well as for the Senate as a whole. She would like to see the Senate adopt the committee's rules proposals this year rather than waiting for the rules that were adopted this year to expire. She does not want the issue to get lost during what is sure to be a hectic legislative session.

That request is something committee member Squadron does not think is unreasonable, "We can't wait more than a year. We are not some task force that will make recommendations that will wind up sitting at the bottom of a drawer. The Senate will take action on our recommendations."



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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Be A Cheerleader

By Ed Koch

The first thing a mayor should do is be a cheerleader for the city. What the next mayor has to do is inspire people and businesses to stay in New York. There is a failure of hope among some in this city at the moment. But people are bucked up by knowing that others in the same boat have a verve and an intent to survive and overcome. That is what the new mayor can do.

The moment I enjoyed the most in my 12 years as mayor was when we had a transit strike. One morning, I was in the office of Police Commissioner Bob McGuire, and he was telling us that all we could do about the strike was provide parking lots. Everyone was wondering how we were going to keep the city going.

I looked out the window of the Police Plaza building, and I saw tens of thousands of people walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. I said to the police commissioner, "Continue, I'll be back." I got in the elevator, and I ran down to the Brooklyn Bridge. I went onto the bridge and I shouted, "Walk over the b ridge! We aren't going to let these bastards drag us to our knees." People began to applaud. It was not meant to be theatrical. I felt it. But I realized I was on to something. For the next 11 days, which was the duration of the transit strike, I went to every single bridge connecting Manhattan in the morning and in the evening encouraging people.

Today, the new mayor should buck us all up in a similar way. He should immediately call together every CEO of any institution, commercial, academic, and non-profit to Madison Square Garden. Call them in and say, "You are our troops. You have contacts all over this country. We want you to use them. And we want you to put pressure on the people in this room who are thinking of bailing out."

My second piece of advice for the next mayor is to NOT do what every mayor, myself included, has done. We all thought that anyone who came before us did not have anything to add to the equation. Experience brings a certain benefit and knowledge, but new mayors do not call on those leaders of the past. I never invited the advice of Mayor Beame, David Dinkins did not invite me, and Rudy Giuliani did not invite David Dinkins. We have to stop that.

When I was with Mark Green the other day he said, "Do you have any advice?" I said yes. If you become mayor, invite Rudy Giuliani back to Gracie Mansion. Mark Green said, "Do I have to?" He was only following the path that we all take, but it is a mistake, particularly at this time.

The next mayor must also call on the other experienced politicians in this city and state who know people in Congress and the White House. People with connections that can help the city in this time of need have to be drawn in. There is one thing in government that works. If you can call on a friend, if you can call on someone you know who can help get things done, then you have an edge.

I am not disparaging the new mayor when I say he does not have those contacts. He can not be expected to have them. You acquire them when you have been in government for years. The next mayor should call on the former governors, congressional members, senators, mayors, and business people who live in this city and ask them to help.

Not only does the next mayor have to assemble a first class team, but he also has to avoid political patronage of any kind. This is the time for the best people. We all like to say we brought in the best people, but in my administration some of them were friends of mine and that was part of the equation. Patronage should not be part of the equation anymore.

In my estimation, those of us who have lived in New York are incredibly lucky. The next mayor must inspire all of us -- businesses, government, and private individuals -- to give back to a city that has given so much.

Edward Koch served as Mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989.

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Read Show Up by Andrew S. Eristoff

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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