Daniel L. Feldman

Excerpts from Tales from the Sausage Factory: We Need the Legislature, Good or Bad – or Good and Bad

In New York State Government on September 30, 2010 at 8:51 am

By March 2010, one State Senator darkly joked that he longed for the days of “dysfunction” – at least it “has function in its title.”

It is hard to imagine, but about forty years earlier the New York State Legislature . . .was considered a model of institutional professionalism. In a 1971 report, it was one of four that received the highest ranking available from the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures. (The others were California, Illinois and Florida.)

Quinnipiac University polls New Yorkers’ attitudes toward “the way the state legislature is handling its job,” and regularly finds – urban, suburban or rural, male or female, upstate or down – that less than a third approve.

Does the Legislature deserve all the disapprobation that is heaped on it? Some say not. Syracuse University political scientist Jeffrey Stonecash, for instance, has said the idea that the New York State Legislature is dysfunctional a “myth.” According to Stonecash, “what takes place in Albany is just normal haggling over policy.” Long-time Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Democrat from Westchester County, has asserted in The New York Times “Although in the last few years there have been things the Legislature has had to improve, most things we do well.”

Brodsky went on to attribute the New York State Legislature’s problematic reputation to bad public relations. “We’ve been very effectively Swift-boated as dysfunctional, ineffective and corrupt,” he said. “And it’s our fault. We have never gotten the message out in a coherent way of what we do well and right.”

Stonecash and Brodsky overstate the case. The legislature has been performing dismally, and is in major need of reform. But, to be fair, [Feldman and Benjamin remind us, drawing upon Feldman’s eighteen years of service in the Assembly and writing in his voice,] state legislators do some things well.

Good or bad – good AND bad – we need it

Legislatures are not simply arenas for rational problem solving. They are places in which society’s emotional and psychological needs are manifested, manipulated and addressed.

Efforts to change laws are meaningful. The bills introduced to reform the Rockefeller drug laws, for instance, and the widely publicized arguments by politicians who supported them – did constitute a kind of “official” response. The fact that some part of the government – the legislators advancing reform ideas – is “trying to make things better” can bring satisfaction to members of the public who want change. Society is stronger when we have faith in our democratic institutions.

I'm just a bill

On the other hand, efforts without outcomes over many years are delegitimizing, as we have seen in the corrosive effects of New York State’s persistently late budgets. A regularly demonstrated incapacity to reach a result inevitably undermines public confidence in government. Comparative high taxation, questionable state fiscal health, and regional unemployment also contribute to voter hostility.

As we seek to appreciate the Legislature’s strengths as well as its shortcomings, the institution defies definitive characterization. Like all political institutions, it continues to evolve – sometimes in mysterious ways. For those who care about government and policymaking, the mystery is part of the attraction.

  1. […] Excerpt from Tales from the Sausage Factory: We Need the … […]

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