The Best Policy

The Circus Comes to Albany

Why the state Senate bedlam will be good for New York.

The battle for control of the New York state Senate has turned Albany into a circus for the past several days, but in the long run, this chaos will be good for the state, its government, and democracy.

For those who have missed the excitement, here’s a quick summary: Two state senators, members of the slim 32-30 Democratic majority, switched to the Republican side, swinging power in the chamber back to the GOP, which had controlled the Senate from 1965 until this year. With two weeks remaining in the legislative session and most of the major legislative issues remaining to be resolved, the conflict has thrown the legislative branch into even greater disarray than normal, with Democrats locking the Republicans out of the Senate chamber. (And I haven’t even mentioned the machinations of a disgruntled, hockey-team owning, three-time gubernatorial candidate billionaire.)

 Yes, the Senate takeover is being orchestrated by a rogue’s gallery of politicians and their associates, grabbing for power in a base, self-interested way. But if you look at the upheaval from a different angle, it begins to make sense and to seem like a step forward in New York politics. Over the past few decades, Albany was properly criticized for the fact that all important agreements were reached among “three men in a room.” The governor, speaker of the Assembly, and Senate majority leader had almost unilateral power to act and bind their branches. Virtually all authority was vested in the individual legislative leaders, and no individual legislator or committee was perceived as being able to act without the consent of that leader. No votes occurred on the floor of either chamber without a predetermined outcome, and debates on tough issues rarely occurred. Albany’s secretive, authoritarian political culture meant that individual legislators rarely if ever even attempted to exercise the traditional prerogatives that we expect of congressional legislators: voicing serious dissent, pushing an individual legislative agenda, conducting open hearings on contentious issues of public policy.

So good government groups and editorial boards rightly demanded that individual legislators be empowered to turn the Assembly and Senate into real deliberative chambers. In an odd way, that is exactly what is happening. With control of the Senate almost perfectly divided between the parties, any one legislator can tip the balance of power, and hence every legislator has something heretofore denied them—great negotiating capacity.  After playing the role of sheep for years, legislators are now recognizing they have the power to be coyotes.

The use of that power by two Democratic senators, though perhaps for questionable purposes, is emboldening others to use their leverage to bargain for worthwhile causes. State Sen. Tom Duane is reported to be negotiating with the Republicans to persuade them to bring a bill authorizing same-sex marriage to the floor. And the Republicans, perhaps knowing that their control of the chamber will be short-lived, passed some reform measures, that while less than what should be sought, are more than what they put in place during their decades of control, or what the Democrats had put in place during the past five months. Perhaps recognizing that the Democrats, upon reassuming power, wouldn’t be able to repeal the measures, the Republicans also passed some rules benefiting minority-party members and rules opening up the legislative process.  As Gerald Benjamin, a noted Albany government expert observed, the “comic opera” might actually result in “substantial long-term rules changes.”

We should not forget that democracy is often an ugly process. The sterile decision-making that was criticized when it was behind closed doors has been replaced for the moment by the crass and ugly sausage-making that is legislative process. Out of this mess may come a legislative branch where legislators actually begin to voice differing views, argue on substantive matters, and finally bring into the open the discussion of issues that should be occurring in public.