Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Albany: Political Reforms & Reform Politics

State Senator James Seward, who represents GreeneLand and other up-State counties, has endorsed some measures of reform for New York State government. His proposals offer a timely occasion to ponder what needs doing as well as to speculate about political forces shaping reform proposals. In newspaper columns and on his web site, Senator Seward has espoused two kinds of reform:

Term limits package. By way of constitutional amendment, limits would be placed on how long State-wide elected offices (governor, attorney general, controller…) can be held and on how long legislative leaders--Assembly Speaker, Senate Majority Leader, committee chairs—can serve continuously. The limits on tenure in State-wide election office would be two elective terms, amounting to eight years. For legislative office, the limits would be eight years for Senate Majority Leader and Assembly Speaker, and six years for committee chairs.

Initiative and Referendum. State laws could be adopted by means of direct popular election, after being placed on the ballot by way of large-scale petitioning; and laws passed by the legislators could be subject to ratification or rejection by direct popular vote. (See “Power to the People” at the web site ) Senator Seward has solicited public comment on these measures. Here are ours.

END RUN? In calling for constitutionally mandated limits on the tenure of Senate and Assembly chieftains, Senator Seward breaks new ground. The usual targets of advocates of statutory term limits are holders of elective public office. And in coupling his unconventional proposal with a conventional one, Senator Seward may be attempting to reach a desirable goal by roundabout means. The desired result would be restraining the powers of legislative chieftains such as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. Compared with their counterparts in other States, those leaders do wield extraordinary power. They shape the career paths and perquisites of their legislative co-partisans. In large measure they decide who shall be allowed to deliver benefits to constituents. Formally speaking, they wield this power at the pleasure of their fellow legislators. They can be dumped by simple majority vote of their respective co-partisans (the Assembly Democrats, the Senate Republicans). Realistically, however, direct attempts by rank-and-file legislators to replace or muzzle them could be suicidal professionally. The perquisites that have been acquired by the entrenched leaders keep them entrenched. Thus, while no constitutional amendment is needed legally to impose limits on the terms of legislative chieftains, and their powers, maybe no other device would work.

Similarly, Senator Seward’s call for instituting the Initiative and the Referendum can be viewed as an attempt to create an avenue for achieving otherwise-infeasible reforms. In this case, the reforms would be counters to the disposition of incumbent legislators, in generously bi-partisan fashion, to feather their own nests. By way of referendum, the voters could negate measures that serve only the special interests of incumbent law-makers, measures that fatten the incumbents’ paychecks, expense accounts, pensions, and job security. By the same token, initiatives could be used to adopt salutary reforms that otherwise would be blocked because they jeopardize the (bi-partisan) interests of incumbent legislators. Prominent among those reforms would be curbs on the size and sources of financial donations to candidates for elective office. Such restrictions are more inconvenient for incumbent office-holders, Republican and Democratic alike, than for challengers. Perhaps Senator Seward has this kind of result in mind as benefits of the Initiative and Referendum. That line of thought draws upon sensitivity to political context. It is grounded on awareness of the facts that reform of State government has been much in the news this year; that public discussion has been focused chiefly on proposals made by the newly-elected governor, Eliot Spitzer; that those proposals call for reducing the power of big money in elections and for reducing the number of competitively safe districts; that the governor is a Democrat while the Senate’s Leader, Joseph Bruno, is a Republican, as is Senator Seward; and that Senator Bruno has responded coldly to Mr Spitzer’s program. Mr Seward has not openly differed from his Senate leader. But perhaps he is a closeted friend of campaign finance reform.

WRONG REMEDY? At any rate, the “end run” way of appreciating Senator Seward’s reform proposals could be unduly charitable. Meanwhile, we can guess plausibly that in supporting mandatory limits on the terms of elected officials, Senator Seward backs a bad cure for a genuine problem. The problem is entrenchment. Incumbency begets incumbency—and insularity. Turnover, as Senator Seward says, offers “a guaranteed mechanism to keep [our] leadership fresh and the exchange of ideas innovative.” There would be “more participation from government officials and lawmakers, “more creative and innovative policymaking,” “a greater level of openness, transparency and accountability for the people of New York State.” That appraisal, however, can be countered by way of attention to other effects of mandated term limits:

*Loss of experience. Mandatory limits on the terms that can be served by an elected official could deprive the legislature of expertise vis-à-vis the career bureaucrats. In Senator Seward’s own words, although mandatory term limits would help “to keep democracy fresh,” they also may “empower career bureaucrats because officials aren’t around long enough to develop an expertise in an area.” In addition:

*Lame Duckery. Mandatory term limits can be assessed plausibly as an obstacle to effective service. If the occupant of an elective office cannot be re-elected, she loses incentive to perform effectively. Skip the case work. Take the salary and sit. Take the lobbyists’ favors and ask for more. Never mind the voters.

*Malrepresentation. Mandatory term limits can be assailed further from the standpoint of fidelity to democratic governance. They deprive the voters of what could be a preferred choice; and the preference may be based on the evidence of long, faithful service.

COP-OUT? Although mandatory term limits may be a bad remedy, they still can be seen plausibly as a way of countering a serious problem. The problem is being saddled with entrenched, unresponsive, virtually self-anointed office-holders. And this leads us to suggest that Senator Seward’s package of reforms can be regarded plausibly as a smokescreen. While touting mandatory term limits and the Initiative and the Referendum as prospective gains of “power to the people,” Senator Seward has been conspicuously silent on contemporary proposals that seem likely, without bad side effects, to foster responsive governance, namely,

*FAIR REDISTRICTING, in which the boundary lines of Assembly and Senate electorates make sense in terms of contiguity, compactness, respect for county and municipal boundaries and population size. As matters stand, the incumbent legislators control redistricting, and they habitually adhere to a bi-partisan master rule: making the world safe for incumbents. Thus, most of the Assembly, Senate and U.S. Congressional districts are safe for one party or the other. They are safe because the incumbent legislators, Republican and Democrat alike, want it that way. That condition deters challenges and even scrutiny. It can be alleviated, as Governor Spitzer has proposed, by putting the authority to re-draw district boundaries in the hands of a blue-ribbon commission. Reducing the number of electorates that are competitively safe for one party or the other (and hence for the incumbent) surely would contribute to the cause of popular control over representatives.

*CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM. Although Senator Seward touts his proposals as contributions to “power to the people,” he has been mute on the subject of campaign finance reform. Such silence is noteworthy in the context of news media attention to Governor Spitzer’s proposals. The governor urges downward limits on the size of any one contribution to a State-wide campaign, to a local campaign, and to political parties, as well as a ban on contributions by corporations to political party coffers. Surely an honest champion of ”power to the people” would want to address those proposals.

ODD OMISSION Similarly, Senator Seward’s call for adopting the Initiative and Referendum is noteworthy for its historical incompleteness. These “power to the people” measures tap into a rich vein of history. They evoke recollections of the Progressive movement that flourished early in the 20th century, in Wisconsin and on the West Coast. But the West evocation is curiously selective. The Progressives commonly advocated the Initiative, the Referendum, and the Recall. The latter measure formulated rules that prescribe how constituents, through petitions, could oust an incumbent from office before the end of her term. In disregarding that part of a traditionally three-part reform package, Senator Seward casts doubt on his devotion to people power. Meanwhile, experience indicates that the Progressive reform package, where adopted, has been a mixed blessing. All sorts of schemes have been promoted, with grass roots participation being essentially a sham. The most notorious negative case in recent times is California’s experience with disruptions caused since 1978 by passage of the property tax-slashing Proposition 13.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Making democracy work is hard work. I applaud Dick May for his efforts to keep us informed and to inspire us to think about issues that affect our common welfare. Dick may get no glory for his efforts, but on the other hand, he gets no money either. Some say he's too tall; I'm one of them. Others complain about his using too many big words. But, hey, Dick, we love and really appreciate you. Keep it going.
Art Klein, Co-Owner of the best tile and cabinet shops on Main Street, Catskill and inveterate self-promoter. Watch the sales roll in now.