Gerald Benjamin and former Assemb. Daniel L. Feldman (D-Brooklyn) are co-authors of the forthcoming "Tales From the Sausage Factory: Lawmaking in New York."

 

If Otto von Bismark came back to life and visited Albany this year, he would surely revise his view that watching sausages and laws being made is equally disturbing. The effect of the lawmaking process, the 19th-century German chancellor would conclude, is far more stomach-turning.

This is especially true for the State Senate. The repeated failure to bring this year's budget process to a close shows that a number of Senate Democrats learned the wrong lesson from their tumultuous early months with the narrowest of majorities, after decades in the political wilderness.

It has not been, "We really do need to stick together in this time of deep fiscal crisis and demonstrate that we can govern, so that we can retain and build this majority." Rather it's been, "If the least responsible among us can successfully hold the broader public interest hostage to his narrow personal or district interests, why don't I try to do the same?"

The now-conventional application of the label "dysfunctional" to the New York State legislature has falsely fostered the view that the reasons for its problematic performance in recent years have been consistent. Not so.

Previously, the persistent divided partisan control - Democrats in the Assembly, Republicans in the Senate - required that ways be found to accommodate conflicting basic priorities. This was true in budgeting, and also in passing other important legislation - like giving prosecutors strong tools to fight organized crime or strengthening environmental protections.

Now, the problem rises more from a Senate Democratic majority that can't or won't cohere on key matters. Its leadership is inexperienced and unproven. Some of its members are of questionable character or integrity. Others, long in the minority, sought and gained office with no expectation, or desire, to take responsibility for governing.

Meanwhile Republicans - hardly scandal-free themselves - have determined that the best path back into the Senate majority is to give the Democrats no help at all in dealing with the budget crisis.

Yet, even while the budget deadlock persisted, a legislature with Democratic majorities in both houses has been passing consequential laws that likely would not have passed in the same form, or at all, with a Republican Senate: protections for domestic workers; treatment, instead of jail, for low-level nonviolent drug offenders; greater accountability for public authorities; no-fault divorce.

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With the gubernatorial election well underway, New Yorkers will be once again encouraged to think that selecting the right chief executive will solve the state's problems. We have long relied on strong executive leadership in New York - we need it and should welcome its restoration. But it is not enough.

Under the pounding repetition of its description as "dysfunctional," public assessment of the New York State Legislature has hit all-time lows. The growing contempt for the legislature threatens to delegitimize the institution designed to be at the center of our representative democracy.

While the legislature is failing to meet the biggest challenges, it is passing laws that matter. And party control matters, too, in what the legislature does. This suggests that, notwithstanding the stomach-turning effect of watching it at work, we can't give up on our legislature.

Structural changes like initiative and referendum that bypass the institution, and therefore weaken it, are not the answer. We need redistricting and campaign finance reform to make elections more competitive and to encourage participation, energizing the public. We need rules reform to make legislative decision-making more transparent and deliberative, again encouraging public engagement.

Finding ways to make our legislature work better, not despairing of its operation and turning to an ever more dominant executive, is the best answer for those who believe in democratic governance for New York State.