Two years ago, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School made headlines with a report thoroughly documenting the "dysfunction" of New York's state Legislature. While the Brennan Center is decidedly left-of-center on many public policy issues, its dissection of Albany's legislative process reached conclusions that cut across ideological and partisan lines.
In contrast to Congress and to most legislatures across the country, the report noted, rank-and-file legislators play little public role in deliberating or deciding the fate of legislation. The center also found major bills often are passed by acclamation, literally hot off the press, without so much as a public hearing or committee report; majorities shamelessly hog disproportionately large shares of the Legislature's $200 million budget; and New Yorkers represented by members of legislative minorities are virtually disenfranchised.
The Brennan report closed with a series of recommendations designed to instill more accountability and transparency into a process it aptly described as "broken."
The Assembly now requires committees to meet a minimal number of times, and all members have to be in the chamber to vote. The Senate only partly repealed "empty-seat" voting and ended the majority leader's sole power to block floor votes, but made it harder to adopt further rule reforms.
An updated report issued by the Brennan Center last week, "Unfinished Business," notes that the most important reforms remain undone. During the 2005-06 session, committees remained little more than a sham. Debates remained few and far between. Public hearings on major bills remained the exception. Key legislation kept breezing through both houses with barely a glance from members.
The report bemoans the exceptionally low pass rate of legislation in New York, but the real problem is an excessive number of bills introduced - more than 15,000 in the current session. No state wastes nearly as much time on duplicative, frivolous measures. Both houses need to tightly cap the number of bills their members can introduce and devote more deliberation and debate to the bills they do intend to vote on.
It's encouraging that both major candidates for governor have indicated they would push the Legislature towards a more open budget-making process and changes in the way legislative district lines are drawn. But most of what is broken in the two houses can only be fixed by legislators themselves.
One reform unmentioned by Brennan would clear the way for all the others - term limits. A wave of new Senate and Assembly members facing hard-and-fast career deadlines would never stand for a continuation of the status quo in the Capitol. And that could only be an improvement.