Thursday, July 16, 2009

One Big Step Forward for the Senate; One Big Step Left to Go

Early this morning, the Senate passed a resolution to substantially alter the operating rules of the chamber. The Senate has gone a long way – certainly farther than the Assembly – to reform their leadership-controlled legislative process.

The new rules uphold most of the good changes made by the GOP-Espada coalition on June 8th, including distributing member resources more equitably, allowing members to move legislation to the floor over the wishes of the majority leader, and imposing term limits on chamber leadership. But they also enacted a suite of new reforms that take important steps to empower rank and file members and increase chamber transparency.

Some of the most important new reforms are:

  • Allowing 1/3 of the membership of a committee to petition to hold hearings on specific bills (subject to the approval of a majority of the committee)
  • Replacing discharge motions with a motion for committee consideration, under which a sponsor can force a committee to vote on her bill (the new motion doesn’t require a majority vote of the chamber or the committee)
  • Allowing committee chairs to hire their own staff - although the rules only force leadership to allocate funding for one staffer per committee.
  • Requiring the Senate to make committee records, agendas, votes, minutes, reports, attendance, fiscal notes, active lists, floor votes, floor transcripts, calendars, the payroll report, and expenditure reports available on a searchable public database.

On the whole, the new rules are a significant improvement over what was passed last January. But like the June 8th rules resolution, this one falls short on reforming the committee process. There is still no process for reading bills in committee or even for requiring committee members to show up to meetings. Committee reports can still be perfunctory and lack any description committees’ work on bills (in addition to making it more difficult for other legislative members and members of the public really understand these bills, a lack of real committee reports -- unique to New York -- makes it exceptionally difficult for the courts to determine legislative intent in difficult cases). And while the new rules allow members to petition for hearings, it does nothing to require hearings on major legislation. All of this means that the only substantive debate on legislation that occurs will probably continue to take place in closed-door party conferences.

But there is some hope. In a statement released last night before the rules vote, chamber leaders said that the Temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform will report back in December about committee reform, when they are expected to recommend reducing the number of committee assignments for each member. With extra time on their hands, committee members should be required to do the deliberative work that occurs in nearly every other legislature in the country. Specifically, the Senate should:

  • Create a formal process for reading bills for amendments (otherwise known as a "mark-up") and public debate in committee;
  • Make more rigorous requirements for committee reports showing the work of the committee on each piece of legislation;
  • Allow committee chairs to hire more than one staff person where necessary; and
  • Set requirements for committee hearings on major legislation

If they do this, they will finally earn the Brennan Center’s full-throated praise.

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