For a true democracy, televise the conference meetings
The worst thing about state government is the level of secrecy in our so-called democracy. The Legislature has established a secret language (“legislativeoria”) that only they can understand. Phrases like “first reading,” “second reading,” “third reading,” “lay it aside,” and the like are spread around like jam on bread. Obviously, much of what the Legislature does could be done in plain English but that’s the last thing that the denizens of the deep want to do. The less the people understand, the more likely the powers that be can slip things through, often unnoticed.
My modest proposal is that every citizen should be brought in handcuffed and forced to sit in the legislative galleries and watch the shenanigans on the floor. Every once in a while there will be a meaningful debate but for the most part, the business of the state’s lawmakers is an exercise in Alice in Wonderland, Jabberwocky-like nonsense. Years ago, I took a sabbatical to study the feasibility of televising the legislature. Finally, after years of prodding, they allowed it but to no avail. We end up seeing a lot of people milling about, bored and dispirited. There used to be a very old senator who was frankly an embarrassment to his party, the ruling Republicans. It got so bad that he would drool as he was speaking and a very kind aide would wipe the spittle off his face. Of course, he had to be a committee chairman but every time a bill came up for debate, some Democrat would stand up to ask a question. The moment those rascal Democrats would dare ask a question it was clear that the old senator couldn’t answer, someone would yell out, “Lay the bill aside.”
The whole idea in a democracy is that the people would be re-presented by their legislators. So they all gather in these big, ornate chamber rooms which are periodically refurbished. It is there that the nonsense described above takes place. However, the fix is in. That’s because the majority parties (those with the most members) have already largely determined what will happen. It’s all arranged in the five conferences (there used to be four until a group of renegade senators threw their lot in with the Republicans).
In the Assembly, the Democrats prepare the script which is followed assiduously. In the Senate, however, things have changed. Even with Andrew Cuomo’s help, the Republicans couldn’t draw districts in which their majority was assured. There simply aren’t enough Republican voters in the state. Unfortunately for them, the situation is only going to get worse. The new “traitor” (independent) Democrats, run under Bronx Democrat boss Jeff Klein, have to bring progressive legislation, such as gay rights or a hike in the minimum wage, to the floor. The old days of the Republicans refusing to bring this kind of legislation to the floor are over.
The point is that most of us will never know what is going on in all these so-called conferences. We may watch meaningless nonsense on the floor on television but the action is really taking place in the secret caucuses. Of course, there is no justification for all this chicanery. The language problem described at the beginning of this article does not occur in the conferences. There they speak English. The fix is to put the conferences on TV since that’s where the real action occurs. Of course, if you do that they’ll probably meet in the men’s room.
Back in the evil Soviet Union, they used to have something called “democratic centralism.” That meant that all power came to the people and was deposited with their leaders who dictated on the people’s behalf. That was nonsense then and it’s nonsense when it’s done in the New York State Legislature. It’s all scandalous but I actually like these people.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/25/13