Sunday, October 7, 2007

Bye-Bye, Cameralism!

The trooper scandal in Albany drags on and on, with the state senate determined to wrest every conceivable publicity advantage out of this. In some ways it is difficult to take sides on this. Clearly, what Gov. Spitzer did was wrong, and it was wrong because it is bad to use government officials on what amounted to a personal vendetta. Its in Spitzer's blood. Targeting individuals to be subject of governmental investigations is part of what being an attorney general is all about, and perhaps it’s a good reason not to elect former prosecutors to high executive office, as the impulse to make examples of enemies takes precedence over other political possibilities. (Its reason #537 not to elect Giuliani president.)

But the bigger problem with what Spitzer did was that it personalized and criminalized what is really a much bigger issue; the abuse of personal transportation services by high NYS officials. Some of this came out with the Alan Hevesi investigations, and what is disturbing about this is, to quote I think Michael Kinsley, is not what is illegal, but what is legal about the way state officials are chauffered around the state at government expense, fitting in their private business along the way.

But the other side of this is that Joe Bruno and the State Senate represents all that is worst in New York State, the entrenched and conservative core of our do-nothing legislature, and Spitzer’s foolish actions made them look like martyrs.

There are many things wrong with the New York State Senate, some of which I hope to address in future posts, but let me take up the most fundamental question first: why do we need a state senate in the first place?

Following from the US constitution, every state (except for Nebraska), in lockstep, created bi-cameral legislatures, in which legislation has to pass both houses before being enacted into law. Bicameralism is a legacy of the founding fathers belief that checks and balances were needed in a functioning democracy, and that a strong upper house was needed to restrain the overly populist tendencies of the lower house. The original motivation for this has long ceased to have any political purpose, but the institutions created to maintain this linger on, through political inertia.

What happens in practice is that checks and balances ends up giving power to the checkers and the balancers. The lack of democracy in New York State, the decision making in the state congealed to the so-called “three men in a room” comes about because of the nature of our government—with the assembly permanently in the hands of the Democrats, and the senate permanently in the hands of Republicans, and the governor either one or the other, nothing can be done in the state without backroom deals, and this is only to be expected when the “people” are forced to participate in a bi-cameral system that guarantees that their “voice” will be expressed in antithetical ways.

Bicameralism is an idea that has come and gone. Most countries have unicameral legislatures without any diminution of their effectiveness. We get nothing in New York State from a two house legislature except its expense and ineffectiveness. The US Senate is perhaps the least fairly apportioned elective body in the world, but at least US Senators represent something real, the states. Since the “one person, one vote” requirements went into effect the 1960s the state senators represent nothing but districts, the same as the assembly. (The state senate used to represent counties, but this, in New York and almost every other state, tended to over-represent rural areas at the expense of cities, and was eliminated.)

We are stuck with the US Senate forever I am afraid, but a state constitutional convention is far easier to arrange. We need a unicameral legislature. I don’t want seem to be picking on the senate at the expense of the assembly, which I don’t really like either, but the senate is the smaller body and I would rather have as broad a representation as possible. If people choose, we could call the new unicameral legislature by a new name, signaling a new start. (The NYS Parliament, Knesset, or Chamber of Deputies or whatever) But it would be a body that Democrats and Republicans would fight to control, and as a result could and would periodically change hands. And it would much more directly, and without needless intermediation, represent the citizenry of New York State