I just got my hands on the "Draft Report of the Temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform." Weirdly, considering the role of this committee in promoting greater transparency in the New York State Senate, the report is not yet on-line (to be fair, the committee has done a good job, up until now, in making records of hearings available as quickly as possible). I'll post a link as soon as I have one.
As you may remember, the Temporary Committee was set up by Senate Democrats to re-examine the rules of the Senate, and to make recommendations for reforming its rules and operations. This has been a cause of the Brennan Center's for many years. The Temporary Committee hired Andrew Stengel, formerly of the Brennan Center, to work with them.
Both chambers of the legislature have been labeled dysfunctional: many standing committees do little work; there is little debate, amendment or review of legislation; conference committees are rare; and leadership controls what gets to the floor for a vote.
We anxiously awaited today's report for months. So what have we received?
While there is much to praise in the report -- in particular, recommendations to increase transparency of the Senate -- the report is most notable for what is left for another day. I don't mean to be too harsh in this criticism. The Temporary Committee has asked to extend its time to work on, among other things, some of the biggest omissions. But there is no denying the omissions, or their importance. In its draft report, the Temporary Committee:
* states that it will develop standards for committee reports to accompany legislation voted out of committee by November 1, 2009 (we have offered our help with this -- it shouldn't be hard to do);
* recommends the development of a bill amendment process in committee "in which the sponsor retains control," without providing much guidance as to what that should look like (it's hard to know what the Committee means by sponsor's "retaining control" of a bill, but I am not aware of a formal rule in any state legislature or Congress that allows a sponsor to prevent a mark-up or consideration of amendments to her bill);
* does not state whether committees should have the right to hire and fire committee staff (which is critical for committees developing their own agendas independent of leadership);
* does not allow conference committees to be called to reconcile similar bills passed in each chamber without the approval of the Majority Leader.
I got a chance to watch a bit of the Temporary Committee's meeting today before this report was released. For the bit I saw, Republicans (predictably) focused on the fact that the report did not recommend equitable distribution of staff resources and member items. While this was a legitimate complaint, and something the Brennan Center has expressed concern about in the past, it was hard not to see the hypocrisy in the outrage over this omission. For decades, Republicans took the lion's share of resources without any concern about equity or the effect such disparate treatment of members had on members' constitutents.
It would be a little easier to believe that the Republicans were interested in improving the operations of the legislature if they also expressed concern about the need for rules changes that had less to do with their own pocketbooks, and more to do with a functioning legislature. Where was the passion for ensuring that committees start producing decent committee reports, or ensuring the existence of a good committee mark-up process, or establishing independent committee staff, or making sure that legislative leaders could not prevent the consideration of popular bills?
As for the Democrats, most members emphasized this report was the start, not the end. We certainly want to believe them.
The Senate will be voting on new rules in January 2010. Today's report is apparently a first step to better rules being adopted on that date.. We don't expect perfection from the State Senate in January 2010. But at the very least, the chamber needs to address most of the concerns mentioned in this post -- particularly those relating to standing committees. If they fail to do that, they will have failed.