Albany Times Union
February 13, 2005
Recent legislative reform a beginning
By Jeremy Creelan
To great fanfare, the state Assembly and Senate each have made changes to their internal operating rules. The announcements were extraordinary events, unimaginable less than a year ago: admissions from members of both houses that, to function more properly, the state Legislature needs governing rules that encourage more deliberation, provide greater transparency and facilitate real accountability. For this, both chambers deserve praise.
But this praise should not distract New Yorkers from the fact that far more comprehensive rules changes are needed. To understand why, it is only necessary to review what the new operating rules have changed and what they have left untouched.
To their credit, both chambers pledged to eliminate “empty seat voting”—the practice of counting absent members’ votes as yes votes—under most circumstances. This practice, offensive to most New Yorkers, had to end.
The Assembly has made a number of other changes: It will hold public meetings and record votes for the Rules Committee, which had been used to kill bills without public meetings of any kind. In addition, it will require its committees to hold annual oversight hearings to assess the relevant state agency’s implementation of its programs. The Assembly also proposed convening annual budget conference committees20with the Senate20to reach agreement on budget proposals.
While these changes are commendable, they are small when compared to the reforms that still need to be made. Most critically, neither chamber addressed the present system’s two core flaws. First, legislative committees are weak and ineffectual. Committees should be the place where legislators and staff with expertise in a particular area solicit public and expert opinion, and develop, examine and improve bills.
When they work, committees can use the press to build momentum for bills by holding hearings and drawing attention to important issues. Ideally, committees also convey the results of their work to the full chamber in detailed reports that explain their findings and recommendations. Unfortunately, in New York most committees do not hold public hearings on specific legislation, rarely obtain expert testimony and, in the Senate, do not even require senators to be present to vote on a bill.
Second, it is far too difficult for lawmakers to get bills on to the legislative floor for debate and vote by the full chamber. Under the current rules, New York has more barriers to full consideration of a bill than any other state in the nation. Legislative leaders have iron-clad control over the legislative calendars and, as a result, members cannot get legislation debated and considered without the support of those leaders.
Far from addressing this second problem, the Senate took a20major step backward by requiring all future rules changes to be considered exclusively by the Rules Committee, rather than the full chamber. This measure virtually ensures that no future reforms will be made and deprives rank-and-file senators of even the minimal input into the chamber’s internal rules that they have always enjoyed.
It would be a mistake to view the voters’ recent demands for reform as a storm that has now passed. To the contrary, at this moment New York’s Legislature is in the eye of a storm that will not pass until far-reaching and comprehensive rules reforms are adopted. It is up to all of us to keep advocating for such changes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeremy Creelan is deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.