Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Will A Divided Senate Chamber Be Good For Reform?

The New York Times says it looks as though the State Senate will be split, 31-31 between Democrats and Republicans. Could this be good for structural reform of the chamber? There is at least a plausible case to be made that a chamber split exactly in half could help make the Senate the more accountable, transparent and deliberative body we at the Brennan Center have been calling for over the last 6-plus years. Rather than turn to one or two leaders to work out deals with the Assembly Speaker and Governor, and to develop policy entirely behind conference doors, an evenly divided Senate might be forced to debate and compromise in public. Actual substantive work could be done through committees and during committee meetings.

While it's true that things didn't work out too well last session, when the chamber was also closely divided, that's in large part because the old model for the chamber stayed in place. Democratic members defected, and then defected back, but the idea that nearly all of the substantive work and decisions should be done behind closed doors largely remained -- the only questions was which set of leaders held the reins (though certainly not entirely -- credit should be given where it is due, and though New Yorkers could be forgiven for missing it in between the coups and corruption scandals, the Senate did take some important, if small steps toward greater transparency, deliberation, and accountability).

There is the possibility that this time around, the parties will agree that because it all can't get done behind closed doors ahead of time, creating a legislature that works -- where individual members propose, debate and develop ideas in committees, and where compromise is a necessary part of passing any legislation -- will be in everyone's best interest. We can hope, anyway.

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