Thursday, July 06, 2006

Pimps, Madams, and the Legislative Process

An editorial by Bob Herbert in today's New York Times begins by invoking the Brennan Center's 2004 report on New York's "gridlocked" legislative process, and concludes: "The Legislature's status as the most dysfunctional in the nation seems secure." In between, Herbert describes how both the Senate and the Assembly recently passed bills to combat sex trafficking, and yet neither bill made it into law. The problem: "Neither house of the Legislature gave the other house's bill serious consideration." Herbert also suggests that each bill was substantively flawed -- the Assembly bill watered down by the Speaker, the Senate bill poorly drafted -- as a result of excessively powerful leaders and insufficiently powerful committees.

Herbert's editorial provides a trenchant example of how dysfunctional legislative processes lead to undesirable policy outcomes. In the case of sex trafficking, there was a lot of energy devoted to political grandstanding, but hardly any attention paid to crafting and enacting a workable law. The only winners here were "the pimps and the madams."

One takeaway from Herbert's tale is the salutary role that conference committees can play. Conference committees are, as the U.S. House of Representatives defines them, "temporary joint committees formed for the purpose of resolving differences between the houses on a measure or, occasionally, several measures." At the federal level, their use is routine. If the State Legislature won't follow suit, maybe it's time for New York to think hard about institutionalizing a mechanism for cross-house collaboration.

In our 2004 report touted by Herbert, we proposed a rules change to this end: "When bills addressing the same subject have been passed by both chambers, a conference committee shall be convened at the request of the prime sponsor from each chamber or the Speaker and Majority Leader. Such committee shall convene for a 'mark-up' session within two weeks of such a request to reconcile the differences in the two chambers' bills before final passage. These sessions shall be open to the public and shall be transcribed." The Senate and Assembly did not take us up on this proposal when they amended their rules in January 2005. They have another chance in six months time. Pimps and madams might lose out from such a reform, but the public would win big.

Categories: General, Legislative Rules

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