Smith has a golden opportunity to reform the Senate

You may remember that the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU issued a report in which it declared that New York had the most dysfunctional legislature in the country. Of course, they’re just plain wrong. I asked them if they had ever been to Mississippi, Louisiana or Florida. It really doesn’t matter. There are enough bad legislatures in the country that we shouldn’t have to squabble about who has the worst. But it is indisputable that the New York Legislature has long had its traditions of self-seeking, self-promoting, self-protecting actions designed to help themselves while often confusing citizens who might just want to know what was going on. It gets worse. For years, the state Senate, under the control of the Republicans, has treated its Democratic members in a high-handed and despotic manner. To his credit, the new Democratic Majority Leader, Malcolm Smith, has already made good on some of the promises that the Democrats made before they took over the Senate. The question now is whether or not the new Democratic majority will go forward and extend these reforms so that everyone, Republican or Democrat, is treated the same way.

There are both ethical and political reasons for Smith to be more generous to the Republicans than the Republicans had been to the Democrats. Each senator represents about the same number of citizens as any other senator. So every senator should have the same resources, from staff members down to copying machines. It’s just fair. With that said, I am thoroughly enjoying the hypocritical screams and protestations of the Republicans that the Democrats are not treating them fairly when the fact is, the minority has more now than at any time previously.

Then there is the political issue. Democrat Malcolm Smith has to know that since the Senate is only controlled by the Democrats by a few votes, he has a potentially bad situation on his hands. David Paterson, his governor, is committed to re-election. While last time out the Senate rode the Obama coattails, Paterson is no Barack Obama. This time it might just go the other way and the majority could flip again. The Democrats, running with Paterson may just lose control of the Senate which would be disastrous since the next election will mark the beginning of the reapportionment process. If the Republicans are in control of the Senate, they will do what they have always done — use the process to make sure that they draw districts where they have a better chance of winning. As every high school civics student knows, this process of screwing the minority is known as gerrymandering.

So we have Smith faced with the possibility that a) his party may well lose the next time out; b) control might revert to the Republicans and c) through the gerrymandering process, these same Republicans might end up controlling the Senate for some time to come. It stands to reason, therefore, that Smith and his colleagues might consider making the State Senate more democratic and fair by treating the Republicans well. They might just understand that sooner or later they might be the minority once again and it will be very hard for the Republicans to go back to their old ways of treating the Democrats with contempt. What’s more, Smith has the possibility of being treated very well in the history books as the senator who brought Democracy to the Senate. He has already said that he is not a career politician and that his time in the Senate will be limited. It is a golden opportunity for him.

While the reform commission that Smith wisely appointed with Democratic and Republican co-chairs is at it, they might just want to take a look at the way the lines are drawn. A panel of distinguished jurists, as balanced as possible between the two parties, might just be the right group to draw the lines. Otherwise, democracy will continue to be denied, despite the continual huffing and puffing of our politicians to the contrary.

The New York state Legislature is now an anathema to the people it purports to be governing. If the Senate passes reasonable rules, the Assembly can’t be that far behind. So far, leader Smith seems to be doing an excellent job of getting out front on this issue, whether for the right or the wrong reasons. Either way, he is to be congratulated for doing the right thing.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/6/09

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