Back in the days when ducks could fly into a pond without having to worry about hunters shooting at them with shotguns, and New York state legislators didn’t have to worry about ethics and redistricting plans getting in the way of their business interests, life for a New York state legislator was easier. In the 19th century, patronage and privilege were just an accepted part of political life. Like today in a way.
Back then, a bribe was really not a bribe, just as today a promise is not a promise. At least in Albany, that is. In the Albany of today, a poor downtrodden legislator can hide behind unnecessary legislative complexity and procedural constipation. Self-dealing can be veiled behind constipated procedures that keep citizens outside the political process.
In the 2011-2012 legislative seasons, New York state leaders in Albany may have surpassed even themselves in their cynical disrespect for public service. What do we see emerging from the current leadership in Albany? Well, the gambling interests have been rewarded by economic development grants. The legislative leaders got their self-serving redistricting lines. Once again, in 2012, complexity is being used to thwart necessary ethics reform — but necessary, perhaps, only from the perspective of citizens who expect straightforward and transparent government.
Almost everything in New York state public life has become too complicated. Not doing real ethics reform by empowering an independent commission and avoiding redistricting reform is just an accepted part of the same insiders’ game of stalling. This is not only a political problem. It is a cultural problem embedded in a caste system created by political privilege. It comes out of 19th century political practice.
In the good old bad days of the 1880s, when hack politicians of the ilk of Assembly Speaker Thomas G. Alvord, “Big John” MacManus and J.J. Costello ran their deals out of the Albany legislature, one young assemblyman wrote home that members of “the black horse cavalry” were openly trading votes with corporate backers in the lobby rooms of the State Capitol. He later wrote home from that same legislative session that one of his colleagues in the Assembly as “entirely unprincipled, with the same idea of Public Life and Civil Service that a vulture has of Dead Sheep.”
Things are at least marginally better today. Or are they?
Consider the new ethics commission: How does a bipartisan commission whose members are chosen by legislative leaders and the governor compose an independent ethics commission? Is that a recipe for open government? A recipe for more transparency? A check and balance on self-dealing legislators?
How will this new Ethics Commission be more accountable to the public than the old, ineffective New York state Legislative Commission, which was solely responsible for legislative ethics oversight, but which, as of December 2010, had never brought a charge against a sitting legislator?
The new commission, created as a part of the Public Integrity Act of 2011, brings no real reform at all. It is neither nonpartisan, nor citizen-controlled, nor independent, nor even vaguely outside the control of political operatives.
No governor in the present and future of New York state is going to stand up for the prosecution of his own legislative allies through a commission that he can control as easily as he can control this one. Moreover, every governor is going to be tempted to use his appointees to it to put pressure on uncooperative legislators. From a distance, this new commission looks like a piece of pure chutzpah, which demonstrates open contempt for the public or for anyone who cares about clean government.
Standards are easy to talk about. It is also easy to hide indirect corruption behind the constitutions of legislative procedures. Times in Albany may have changed since the Tammany Hall days, but not so much. Although a legislator is supposed to be first and foremost a public servant, not a watch-keeper of caste privilege, such news hasn’t yet impacted the behavior of Albany’s political operatives.
Corruption in Albany, and on Wall Street for that matter, has become two-dimensional. Surface legality camouflages the real action. The general level of corruption can be gauged in New York state government by all the procrastinations employed to avoid serious ethics and redistricting reforms. Complexity has its uses and it creates a useful murkiness if the goal is to prevent much of anything from happening in the way of serious watchdog commissions. Public opinion doesn’t matter much — it must just be finessed.
Most of the public by now can’t even understand the rules of the game. And informed citizens can’t get in the political game if they can’t understand the rules. And that is the point of hiding behind procedural constipation: It makes only a small group of insiders privy to the rules. It closes down access — and in New York state it words beautifully.
By now, several generations of reform advocates have come and gone, having had little effect on the New York state legislative status quo. As it is now, and for the foreseeable future, legislative insiders use unnecessary complexity to keep citizens off the field of play in Albany.
Real reform depends on new procedures that eliminate the complexity that keeps citizens on the outside. Focusing on specific issues in Albany is still important, but the development of an alternative strategy for undermining the lock on power by the Triumvirate of Three — Crassus, Pompey and Cuomo — is needed to return New York state government to citizen control.
Out of this particular chapter of business as usual in Albany could come another revival of interest in citizen initiative and referendum. But there is precisely the danger of the legislative insiders. By sitting on pent-up pressure for a genuine reform of ethics laws, and by persisting in their do-nothingism behind the facade of complex procedures, the long-term risk for them is a major blowback in the shape of a California-style referendum system. That is a dim prospect for the Triumvirate and their dependents.
Citizen initiative, referendum and term limits? What is most needed is a tactic for cutting through unnecessary complexity to evolve a more rational way of doing government business. Unless, of course, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Gov. Cuomo want to see past their own self-dealing by realizing that there are major historical reputations to be made by making the legislative process in New York state truly transparent and far less corrupt.
Funny, isn’t it, how ego and habit prevent otherwise intelligent people from seeing an opportunity to lay down a historical legacy? So many people — in this case three men — can’t see past their short-term interests.
At least Speaker Alvord in the 1880s would have understood them. A pity for them, and for us.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.