CITY VOICES: Is NY government corrupt by design? 

As if we needed it, Sheldon Silver's downfall provides yet another confirmation that without effective oversight, power inevitably corrupts. But his arrest is a teachable moment for the voters of New York State.

The lesson is this: If Albany is an ethical swamp, the dam that prevents the swamp from ever being drained is something that's not even on the public's radar.

The blockage is a bundle of internal legislative rules. Those rules give the Speaker of the Assembly and the Majority Leader of the Senate enormous power to control the flow of legislation; to grant or withhold your legislator's institutional benefits and staff resources; to choose or dismiss committee chairpersons, affecting their paychecks dramatically; and to approve or block support for the election campaigns of legislators, potentially giving them an easy re-election or an ignominious defeat.

True, the speaker cannot control his conference solely through imperial power. He needs the authentic support of conference members, or he will be easily deposed. But the incentives are clear, and new legislators quickly understand their role. Be a good soldier. Vote for the rules package and follow the speaker's lead, or risk serious, career-ending reprisals.

This is crucial for majority legislators, who are currently the Assembly Democrats. But the rules are important for minority legislators, too. Rules give the speaker the power to marginalize the minority, seldom allowing their bills to even come to the floor for a vote, making sure their offices have fewer resources, and in general, keeping them from fully participating in the democratic process.

There are occasional exceptions: The speaker sometimes allows a majority legislator to deviate from the party line for local political reasons, and occasionally a minority proposal makes so much sense that majority members co-opt it, claiming credit for it themselves.

Relentless self-interest makes this a stable system. Even though it results in one of the most dysfunctional state governments in the nation, it works well for nearly everyone in Albany. Leaders get control of billions of dollars. Legislators get to blame the lack of progress on the leaders, who can't be removed by statewide voter recalls. Big-money donors have fewer ears into which they need to whisper for access and influence.

The essential hypocrisy of this arrangement is easily demonstrated. When the rules are presented for a vote, Assembly minority Republicans unfailingly propose amendments - reforms that would clearly make the process fairer and would serve the public interest better. The Democratic majority unfailingly quashes these amendments.

But in the Senate, where Republicans were in the majority for 40 years, and could have instantly implemented every one of these reform measures, members consistently passed a top-down rules package nearly identical to the Assembly's version. So in the Senate, it was the Democrats who advocated fairness, and who got struck down every time. And while the would-be reformers in both legislative minorities will never acknowledge it publicly, they understand very well that if their party ever wins control, they will instantly have to lose their pure white reformer hats.

These rules are not part of the state constitution. They are not even ordinary statute law. Every one of them could be changed tomorrow, if legislators really wanted to change them.

What could happen if new and fairer rules were enacted? The speaker might be forced to tolerate open debate instead of being able to block it. Measures that the public clearly favors but that Albany ignores could be seriously addressed. Majority legislators would be free to support - on the record - their constituents' positions on term limits, campaign finance reform, initiative and referendum, a unicameral legislature, and truly independent redistricting. Minority legislators, instead of being default powerless critics, could have a real role in policy-making, and would be forced to share responsibility for results.

We could begin the process of calling a real citizens' constitutional convention, not a phony one controlled by politicians. Both parties and both houses could agree that the time has finally come to eliminate conflicts of interest by making legislators full-time and by prohibiting outside income.

Because it's all driven by money. Apart from any shady deals legislators make to line their own pockets, the $150 billion legitimately collected to fund state government gets distributed through decisions made behind closed doors by the leaders, because the legislative rules give them that power. It's no secret that those decisions can be heavily influenced by massive political contributions from special interests and lobbyists.

Supreme Court decisions have allowed contributors to conceal their identities, but we already know that only a tiny fraction of those contributions come from ordinary people like you and me. Worse, our porous campaign finance laws have synergy with the legislative rules and with unfair redistricting and exclusionary ballot access. It is getting more and more difficult to avoid the conclusion that our state government has become corrupt by design.

Silver has not been convicted. He may be able to avoid joining the seemingly endless parade of legislators whose greed and willingness to abuse their power leads to prison. His maneuvers, like those of many of his colleagues, may be turn out to be borderline-legal, which is all the more reason to understand his arrest as a call to action.

Given that the current scandal happened a few months after the governor's deal to shut down his Moreland ethics commission for a few lame concessions, there may be more unsavory details yet to be revealed. The only way to avoid continuing down the current dismal path is to force our legislators to fix the rules. Call your legislator, especially if he or she is in the majority. Join Common Cause or one of the other good government groups.

Silver's fall provides the best opportunity in a long time for rules reform. Let's not allow it to be wasted.

Reginald Neale is an author and observer of state politics from Farmington, New York.


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