Reforming Albany. It sure sounds catchy, but until recently it has turned out to be little more than a rhetorical discussion among a few of us.
However, last Tuesday, something unusual happened in the NY State Senate. Working with my Democratic colleagues, we unveiled a sweeping legislative rules reform package, debated the merits of each of the proposals and cast our vote.
We didn't propose anything radical—just a more open and democratic process similar to what is found in Congress and legislatures in most other states. For instance, having your vote recorded as yes or no. In Albany now, the Senate rules allow individual Senators to hide behind a "canvass of agreement" which dictates that unless there is majority support for legislation, no up or down vote is taken and no Senator must defend their voting record.
No vote, no record, no responsibility.
The current rules of the Senate may help certain folks politically, but they undermine the fundamental mission of elected representatives. Our reform package would have, among many other things, required individual legislators to cast votes on every issue brought to the floor of the Senate.
The Republican Majority knew dismissing our reform package outright would have turned into a political liability for them. Virtually every editorial board across the State has taken us to task for inaction on our own dysfunction. Nearly all of New York's good-government groups, including the League of Women Voters, the Brennan Center, Common Cause, Citizen Action and others publicly endorsed our reform package. Therefore, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who single-handedly controls what legislation comes to the floor for a vote (our legislation would have ended this as well!) allowed two full hours of floor debate.
One after another, we argued the merits of our 8-piece reform package. Not one member of the Majority asked a question or offered an explanation for their opposition. They then refused to allow a simple roll-call vote, instead spending more than an hour using procedural maneuvers to prevent them from having to cast a vote they may later have to defend. This is what reformers are up against: elected officials who oppose raising one's hand and casting a vote: the most basic element of democracy.
The frenzy on the opposite side of the aisle led to one of the most interesting, and amusing sessions I have seen in my almost five years in the Senate. In the end, the record shows that every Democrat present voted for reform; it shows that every Republican member escaped their most basic responsibility by not casting a vote.
The goal is for New York to have a more open, transparent and accountable government. This remains impossible so long as legislators fight to escape their most basic duties: deliberation and accountability for our decisions.
We are closer to a switch in party control of the Senate than we have been in decades. Whether the party in control is Republican or Democratic, every New Yorker is entitled to have their voice heard in our Capital, every district deserves fair treatment and every legislator is elected by their district to represent their interests and to be held accountable for their votes and their actions. The procedural rules we operate under dictate whether or not we meet these obligations.