March 7, 2007

It's not just Lifton

I've been frustrated with Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton's lack of a notion that there might be something wrong with how the state legislature functions before, both in her public presentations and in her writing.

It's not just her, though. It seems that almost everyone in the majority of either house - Republicans in the Senate, Democrats in the Assembly - can't imagine why the minorities in those houses are unhappy, or worse, why 'reform' seems to be a continuous drumbeat in the media, one frequently applied to them.

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who I'd previously thought of as a relatively interested Assemblyman, wrote a piece for the New York Times this weekend. Assemblywoman Lifton mentioned that she would be looking forward to it, and unfortunately I see why. It completely ducks any criticism that something might be wrong inside the legislative process, preferring to look at what comes out of that process (sometimes) and a new challenge from a popular Governor.

Brodsky praises the Legislature's attention to constituent service:

The Legislature has always measured up to the second goal: offering access to ordinary New Yorkers. In individual districts, and in the Capitol, members are available and omnipresent. People who will never speak to a governor easily meet with their senators and Assembly members, and democracy functions in their name.

The last phrase strikes me as painfully funny - "democracy functions in their name." Sure, legislators gather votes, but there's no mention of the many barriers to having a democracy in New York that reflects voter sentiments directly, rather than the leadership of a legislature whose members effectively serve at the pleasure of the leadership. So what do we get? Legislators as bureaucrats, providing services to consituents by asking favors of the leadership and the state government. Yet - it "functions in [our] name."

Brodsky acknowledges a problem, but places its source outside the legislature:

Yet we lost the confidence of the people, and we know it.

Part of our problem is genuine institutional failure. We haven’t reformed our electoral processes, there have been instances of law-breaking and special interests are too powerful. Just as important, we failed to make our case about what we do well. When attacks were made, we were silent. When falsehoods were spread, they went unanswered. We enabled the creation of a poisonous, corrosive atmosphere that still cripples our ability to meet our constitutional obligations.

It sounds like Brodsky wants to reform electoral processes, perhaps through redistricting or finance reform, but that's as much good as there is to see here.

"There have been instances" is conveniently passive, the classic form of "mistakes have been made". Sure, special interests are too powerful - but why? Could it have something to do with the tight bonds they've built with the leadership and with legislators through lobbying and donations? The rest of it sounds like the legislature was too quiet and polite to respond to charges, and so everyone beats them up without cause. How sad.

Brodsky's conclusion is especially painful, claiming that the people need the legislature to conduct business as usual even though it seems that they elected a governor in large part because they wanted change in their legislature:

Changing the system from three men in a room to one man in a room is not reform.... We will support the governor’s proposals when he’s right, and oppose them when he’s not. We will make our case to the people clearly. And we must never retreat from exercising our constitutional responsibilities as an independent branch of government, even in unpopular circumstances.

The governor ought to be a welcome partner in that effort. He’s smart, honest and mostly right on the money. He’s already reined in the personal invective and the threats that we heard last month, and the atmosphere has improved. But we will be an independent partner in government. We know what we need to do to improve our own functions. We won’t be steamrolled. We deeply believe in our constitutional responsibilities. And the people need us to be effective, equal partners in the business of the state.

The people need an effective legislature, one that is an equal partner in the business of the state - but they really need that legislature to be responsive to the people, not to its leadership and not to special interests.

Brodsky writes as if the problems in New York State government rest in the difference between Three Men in a Room and the even worse One Man in a Room. Unfortunately, what New York State actually needs is a lot more people in various rooms, doing their jobs on behalf of the voters in a way that corresponds roughly to what our public schools teach students in civics classes. Until that happens - which means a lot more reform inside the legislature - pieces like Brodsky's are little more than "don't look at us - look over there!"

Posted by simon at March 7, 2007 12:36 PM in
Note on photos


NYCO said:

Thanks for the analysis. Very disappointing coming from him.