Michael Waldman and Frederick A.O. Schwarz, Jr.
June 5, 2013
When Sen. Jeffrey Klein and four fellow “Independent Democrats” broke away from other Senate Democrats and shifted control of the chamber, the group promised the move would help end gridlock in Albany. As the 2013 session began, both the IDC and Gov. Andrew Cuomo put campaign finance reform with public financing at the top of their agendas. Both made clear that passage of this reform was a critical measure by which the success of the new Senate power sharing arrangement should be judged. If an independent bloc stands for anything, it should be to clean up corruption in New York politics.
The “independent” bloc may block the most promising reform in a generation — one its own members have introduced. In effect, they may filibuster themselves.
Thus far the IDC members have said Republicans must support the bill in order for it to come to a vote. But the whole justification for an “independent” caucus was to change things in Albany. A Brennan Center analysis of the Senate’s rules shows that campaign finance reform can pass this year with the combined 32 votes of Klein’s group and the other Democrats. The rules offer ample room for such a move. The principle is simple: The Senate makes its own rules, and for open procedural questions, a majority vote prevails. Thirty two votes — support from two of the three caucuses — are enough. No one party has a veto over reform.
The fact that the IDC may not bring this reform to a vote in the Senate — in the face of support from the public, a majority of the Legislature, and all three statewide leaders, including the governor — should startle even jaded New Yorkers.
After all, this year a string of corruption scandals confirmed the corrosive role of big money. The IDC appears poised to wield its power to block a bill that would remedy this corruption. Comprehensive campaign finance reform, similar to New York City’s successful system, would create an independent unit to ensure laws are followed, and increase transparency so voters know who is paying for political support. For candidates who participated in a voluntary public financing program, it would also reduce sky-high contribution limits and provide matching funds for small contributions. These changes would allow candidates to rely on average New Yorkers for funds and trim influence from the special interests that currently provide nearly 70 percent of all contributions to state legislators. A strong Senate bill has been introduced. Its sponsors: the four members of the IDC caucus.
Politicians risk misreading this moment. Citizens care about government corruption.
One bipartisan survey found 74 percent support for comprehensive reform. Business leaders back the matching system by a 4-to-1 margin, according to Zogby Analytics.
In New York as elsewhere, citizens put up with a lot — but given a chance, will vote for change. Already, we saw a surprise Senate election victory by a candidate who backed this reform, Cecilia Tkaczyk. Voters are watching. We cannot know how all this would play out electorally. But political insiders who assume that attention spans are short may be in for a shock.
Scandal often breeds innovation, and fractured party control of the Senate could offer a rare chance for meaningful change. It still can — if the IDC members decide to let their own proposal come to the floor for a vote. To repeat: neither Republican nor Democratic leaders have the power to block or pass reform. In topsy-turvy Albany, the IDC does. “The Republicans won’t let us” is not an answer; it is an excuse. It would compound today’s scandals if the IDC uses its power block change and entrench corruption.
The IDC should break the logjam in Albany. Will it do the right thing? All New Yorkers are watching.
Waldman is president, and Schwartz is chief counsel, of the Brennan Center for Justice.