Friday, April 04, 2008

To Debate or Not to Debate—That’s the Congestion Pricing Question

The answer, clearly is yes.

While I’m not arguing a position for or against the plan, the Assembly and Senate should debate the measure on the floor, millions would be affected by the plan and hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake.

While it’s unclear whether that will ultimately happen, it’s been widely reported that there are ongoing discussions among the Assembly Democrats behind closed doors. According to Thursday’s Newsday: “Much of yesterday was consumed by hours of closed-door debate among the Assembly's Democratic majority over Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan.”

The appropriate venue to debate congestion pricing is out in the open, on the floor of the Assembly. Anything less is unacceptable. Far too long and far too often, almost universally, discussion in party conferences has replaced public debate. Like so many other issues, the public has the right to know where their representatives stand.

As the Brennan Center reported in Unfinished Business, the update of the landmark report on state legislative reform from two years earlier, less than one out of 20 major bills that are eventually passed into law are debated on the floor of the Assembly or Senate. In fact, floor debate is nearly non-existent and becoming more so.

Between 1997 and 2001, 95.5% of the major bills in the Assembly and 95.1% of the major bills in the Senate passed without any substantive debate on the floor. 81.8% of major bills passed the Assembly and 70.8% passed the Senate without any discussion whatsoever.

Remarkably, there was even less debate in 2005 after the new rules were passed. 96.8% of major laws passed by the Senate and 95.3% of major laws passed by the Assembly were not subject to any substantive floor debate. Similarly, 89.9% of the major laws passed in the Senate and 89.0% of major laws passed without any discussion on the floor at all.

While I think debating congestion pricing on the floor would be a victory no matter the outcome, unless we reverse the trend of substituting party conferences, which take place in private, for floor or committee debate open to the public, we will have won the battle but continue losing a major front in the rules war.

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