The Legislature’s structure isn’t the problem – By George J. Marlin
The following appears in the July 2-8 issue of the Long Island Business News:
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio is calling for New York’s bicameral Legislature to be abolished and replaced with a unicameral version because, in his judgment, the present structure is fatally flawed.
Lazio claims a one-house Legislature would cost less, be more efficient and “lawmakers would be held accountable for blocking good ideas because of partisanship or special interest pressure.”
Frankly, I don’t believe abolishing the existing makeup of the Legislature would improve the mess in Albany. To the contrary, it would make it far worse.
The father of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, held that men are not angels and, therefore, need government because there are “sown into their nature” human tendencies that can lead to political oppression. To check these appetites he called for the creation of a mixed government consisting of three separate branches of government, including a bicameral Legislature, to balance power and to protect liberties. Madison believed this approach would “protect the people against their rulers” and “against their fickleness and passion.”
To avoid legislative tyranny and to achieve consensus that protects majority and minority rights, the Founding Fathers created a bicameral Legislature precisely because it would encourage gridlock and multiplicity of interests, thus making it difficult to secure a majority and preventing a single interest or a demagogue from dominating and imposing its will.
They agreed with Madison’s position expressed in Federalist No. 10 that by expanding the sphere of the Legislature “you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens … more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other.”
Lazio is right that in Albany things are pretty bad under the present legislative system. One can only imagine how much worse it would be if the Senate were eliminated. The speaker of a one-party dominated house and the public employee unions would call every shot because there would not be another body to stop him or to slow him down.
A unicameral Legislature controlled by Shelly Silver or his successor would afford pro-job creation interests no shelter from the assaults of those pushing for more spending and higher taxes. A unicameral Legislature would deprive reform governors the ability to play one house against the other as Mario Cuomo did in the 1980s.
I disagree with Rick Lazio’s assertion that the problem in Albany is “the very structure of government itself.” New York’s legislative structure, which is fundamentally a clone of the federal one, is sound. The real problem is that many of its members hold office not to promote the common good but to promote what they perceive as their individual good – that which benefits them personally.
James Madison assumed that the Legislature in a constitutional republic, would be dominated by people of high character “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
This is not the case in Albany. The state Legislature is populated by too many hacks interested solely in lining their pockets and those of their cronies. That’s why almost every week there’s an announcement that another legislator is being investigated, subpoenaed, indicted or jailed.
The Legislature can only be as good as the people who serve in it. And until there is a statewide voter rebellion that throws out the bums who are abusing the system, expect self-interest to take precedence over much-needed public policy reforms regardless of the Legislature’s structure.