Another Chapter Unfolds In Rules Reform

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Governor Mario M. Cuomo once famously said: “You campaign in poetry. You govern is prose.”

That prose sometimes unfolds in many chapters. The perfect example is reform of the legislative rules that govern the Senate. The Senate’s closed, leadership-driven culture was well documented, most notably by three reports from the Brennan Center for Justice: a 50-state analysis of legislative procedure in 2004; an update in 2006 that assessed rules changes; and a second update in 2008 that assessed new areas. (I was a co-author of the most recent report.)

While the problems in the Senate were well known, let’s remember that the chamber did not become dysfunctional overnight.  No matter how may reports or proposals have been issued in the past, all that ails the Senate will not be cured immediately.

The following outlines the chapter-by-chapter “prose” of rules reform, the balance of which we hope to codify by the start of the 2010 session:

The first historic chapter of rules reform was written on January 9, 2009. The new Senate Majority, lead by new Majority Leader Senator Malcolm A. Smith, took two important steps towards restoring democracy to the Senate: first, by passing new rules that expire at the end of 2009; and second, by creating the Temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform.

The new rules for 2009, a sign of the sincere intent of the reform process, rolled back onerous, undemocratic provision enacted in the past decade. Under the newly-instituted rules for 2009:

•    roll call votes for motions and amendments on the floor are restored and “no” votes are recorded;
•    debate is permitted on motions;
•    open bill sponsorship is allowed without permission from the sponsor; and
•    members are encouraged to use the Internet to provide access to policy debate and records.

Majority Leader Smith also instituted important cultural changes in the Senate that fall outside the rules. These changes are significant: they dilute the power of the Majority Leader by empowering other members with real resources.  All Senators are now guaranteed a baseline budget of $350,000 for staff, a 75% increase for the most junior member in previous session, allowing for full participation of members regardless of party affiliation or tenure. In addition, Chairs of standing committees were allocated budgets to hire staff, which commonly includes a counsel , director and clerk. That broke with the tradition of Senate committee staff under the control of the Majority Leader.

The nine-member bipartisan Senate Temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform, co-chaired by Senators David Valesky and John Bonacic, was charged with making recommendations for a more participatory and transparent process.  The Temporary Committee was asked to solicit feedback from experts and the public and report back by April 24, 2009.

The second chapter of rules reform covers the public hearings and meetings of the Temporary Committee. There were four public hearings—Syracuse, Albany, New York City and Long Island—where more than 50 witnesses gave over 12 hours of testimony. All of the hearings were webcast live and all the video and transcripts are available for viewing at the Temporary Committee’s homepage.  The Temporary Committee met three times in Albany, and those meetings were also webcast and the records made available online.

A draft report was presented to the Temporary Committee on April 21, 2009, following the unprecedented nature and amount of public comment and deliberation about rules. The majority of recommendations in the report were discussed and agreed entirely within public view to a month prior, which is evident in the transcripts of the first three meetings (March 18, March 24, and March 25) and an email of a draft working document disseminated before the second meeting.

The next chapters of rules reform will be written shortly, when the Temporary Committee is extended by resolution and some rules that can be instituted before the end of session are introduced via resolution. The balance of recommendations in the Temporary Committee’s report will be expressed in another resolution in time for the 2010 session.

That, however, will not be the final chapter on rules reform. Our goal is continuous improvement of Senate rules and administration, stemming from the belief that how the Senate conducts its business has a large impact on the quality of what legislation it produces.  

Finally, to the benefit of all, the Senate has begun acting like, well, a Senate.