The Primal Scream for Reform

June 25, 2010 Leave a comment

 

It has become a cliché that the New York state legislature is dysfunctional.  And to most observers, the failure to pass a budget is just another manifestation.  I dissent from this view.   The State legislature has actually been quite busy, and with important matters.   It is, definitely, functional. 

For instance, within the last year, the legislature passed ethics reform (although the Governor vetoed it), rules reform enabling bipartisan participation in Senate committee leadership, some public authorities law modifications, Rockefeller Drug Law reform, charter school reform, government consolidation legislation and no fault divorce among other things.

The problem is not with the lack of effort of these legislators.  The problem is that they seem unable to tackle really tough things, like the budget.  But, before we criticize our legislators too severely, it may be useful to observe this tendency in our own lives:  to be engaged in respectable effort but come up short on matters of enduring value. 

Most of us occupy ourselves for days, weeks, even years with the apparent demands of everyday life, but find excuses to avoid  more durable investments, such as cultivating closer relationships with our children, long term family financial planning, or researching new job opportunities that can increase our personal satisfaction.

In both cases, in government and in our personal lives, the failure to address matters of real value leads to profound personal dissatisfaction, and, ultimately to blame, usually of others.  In politics, the vehicle for diverting personal responsibility to blaming others, is the political party.  More on this in a moment.

Let’s first ask, how is it possible that serious people in Albany can be so intensely engaged but fail to discharge the truly urgent.   Many pundits say it is the deteriorating ethical environment in Albany.  I’m not so sure of this.   Seriously, does a Governor’s use of complimentary Yankee tickets or a lobbyist picking up a legislator’s tab for dinner have that much to do with the systemic failure to discharge the public good?

No, there is a void in Albany bigger than lack of ethics.  It is lack of imagination, or to put it another way, the absence of a sense of purpose strong enough to take risks on behalf of the common good.  Imagination and risk are at the heart of our success as a nation.  The willingness to embark on a journey through unmapped territory is an American hallmark.  

Examples abound in our history:   Jefferson’s plan for a network of roads and bridges throughout the Louisiana Purchase, the Erie Canal, Lincoln’s launching of the Transcontinental Railroad during the depths of the Civil War, and his land grant colleges plan, and the Homestead Act, Teddy Roosevelt’s system of national parks, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the GI Bill, the national highway system, social security, the Peace Corps, the SUNY university system, and New York’s pioneering investment in hydroelectric power fifty years ago. 

These towering achievements occurred at a time when people looked to the government for big ideas and the government delivered.   Government was a partner with the people, igniting their imagination, promoting their aspirations and safeguarding their interests.  Today, no one expects much from the government and the government obliges.  But the blame for this situation cannot be placed solely at the doorstep of today’s politicians.

The genesis of this culture of governmental degradation was the ridicule heaped on it by Ronald Reagan.  The “great communicator” communicated the devastating message that the government’s bank of big ideas was bankrupt.  Placing the blame for our problems on the government satisfied those who like to blame others, but it left a permanent scar on the American psyche.  “Morning in America”,  Reagan’s invocation to a resurgence of national pride, has turned into a nightmare of unrequited dreams for our collective future.

Reagan’s successors, including Clinton who ratified financial reforms that led to our current distress, but especially Bush II, contributed to the dislodgement of government from key roles in protecting the people’s collective right to honest investment advice from brokers, responsible bank use of assets, the safety of our food, the purity of our water, the reliability of our energy, dependability of our travel, the sanctity of our environment, and so forth. 

At the bottom of this slide we find ourselves in an Orwellian reality where government is not the big brother, but where business is the abusive father.   The wreckage of our economy done by the financial industry has been, perhaps, unimaginably, surpassed by the oil industry’s wreckage of our environment.  These are acts done with shattering displays of nonchalance and smug self assurance that would have been unthinkable thirty years ago.

Distaste of government is so great, that federal responses to these financial and environmental catastrophes have been hesitant and ineffective.  And here at home, in New York, the government’s response to the budget crisis has been similarly ineffectual.   No political party will allow its members to take a lead on a budget that makes cuts or contains new spending, even on critical investments, if it involves new indebtedness. 

Because the political parties cannot be counted upon to deliver solutions to big problems, Lt. Governor Ravitch suggested that a Financial Review Board be constituted to make these decisions.  Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Cuomo, while endorsing some of these points, was right to point out that the budget process cannot be subcontracted out to a non-elected financial board. 

So the question becomes, how to de-politicize the process that depends on people elected through the political process.  Well, first of all, it doesn’t take much to see that “five men in a room” is not a reliable way of producing a budget.  This is because the duty of party leaders to advance their party’s tactical advantage over the other party, is greater than their duty to the good of the collective, i.e. passing a budget.  Until the priorities are reversed, we’ll never get an on time budget, or a gimmick free one. 

The burden of passing a budget, and ultimately, to curing the so called “dysfunction” in Albany must fall on individual legislators breaking free of party.  Clearly, these men and women, nearly all of them, retain a passion for the common good despite partisan politics, and a willingness to act courageously if necessary, despite party loyalty.  It’s just that the gross warfare of politics has squelched these positive commitments.

Still, there are probably enough of them left in both parties, who, secure in their districts, committed to their constituents, or just plain fed up are willing to come forward to produce a budget.  Someone or some group needs to start the process, in essence creating a separate power structure, outside of party, to assert non partisan leadership on budgetary matters.  Who will that person or persons be?

The risks are substantial, but the rewards are great for those willing to step forward.  New Yorkers may lend their voices loudly to the national cries of anti-governmentalsim, but they, like their countrymen, are not without the basic values that continue to motivate the best voices among us:  those who find a way to value the truth above competing duties of political loyalty, or short term political advantage at the expense of the long term interests of our State.   

Any such political leader stepping forward is likely to find appreciation, not rebuke at the hands of his or her constituents, provided he or she acts truthfully in explaining his purpose.  That is the opportunity and responsibility awaiting individual legislators who claim any real commitment to reform.  It just takes a little imagination.

Stu Brody is former Chair of the New York State Democratic Rural Conference and teaches Business and Political Ethics at SUNY New Paltz.

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Civility in American Politics: The Long Good Bayh

February 22, 2010 2 comments

Civility in American Politics:  The Long Good Bayh

By Stuart H. Brody

The political landscape sustained another aftershock last week when Evan Bayh called it quits in the United Sates Senate.  More jarring than the news of his retirement was the uncommonly frank terms in which he criticized the partisanship that had immobilized the political world he inhabited for twelve years.

Just a few weeks early, Massachusetts voters expressed a similar frustration by electing Scott Brown to the Senate, and in the process ended President Obama’s supermajority, doomed safe passage of his signature domestic issue, and all but buried the promising story line of his early Presidency.

Seeking relief from the collapse of his leadership brought on by partisanship, the President’s State of the Union called for a revived commitment to the “bold action and big ideas” that had fueled previous national triumphs over adversity.  Yet he must surely have known, as Senator Bayh lamented, that the men and women listening to him in the House Chamber that night are incapable of providing it.

Our Founding Fathers dazzled the world with their inventiveness and inspired two centuries of descendants to sustain their noble work by collaboration and compromise.   These days, our political parties, like warring sects of a once common religion, have sunk into the delusion of encrusted myth, nearly incapable of rational action.

The Republican myth asserts that the “market” has the power to correct all economic abuses despite overwhelming evidence of its blindness to civil rights, labor fairness, anti trust violations, natural resource exploitation, securities fraud, campaign finance abuse, food and drug security and the list goes on.  In their free market zeal they have elevated cutthroat competition to the level of virtue and have thus abandoned not only the true tenets of free enterprise but their trust in a government that has shown remarkable power to educate, heal, invent and build.

The Democrats cling with equal fervor to the myth of government as the prime societal force for good, with the power to ameliorate human nature and deliver us to the threshold of utopia.  Democrats act as if by taxing regulating and spending they can soften every sharp blow of capitalism.  Democrats foist on government these expectations of moral achievement while decrying the very vehicle—our free enterprise system—that has delivered incalculable economic improvement.

The extremism of these political ideologies stymies cooperation and subverts our collective aspirations.   In asserting their agendas, and fueled by the fringe groups that finance them, our Senators and Representatives behave in the halls of Congress like members of a radical cult:  dialog through denunciation, communication through confrontation, insistence on personal infallibility, consistency at all costs and the identification of personal integrity with rigidity of belief.

And so, the chasm of American politics gets wider, the excuses for not acting more convoluted, the blame more fierce, the problems deeper and the solutions more distant. 

This past year has made clear that even the charisma of a natural born leader –that old standby of American political revival-is insufficient to bridge this gulf.   Expecting that President Obama can reinvent himself to cure this turmoil is unrealistic and deepens the cycle of disappointment.

Nor can the breakthrough that he envisioned at the State of the Union come from some magical unity over policy.  Current economic stresses, looming environmental catastrophe, the chokehold of dependence on foreign oil, freelance terrorism, two endless wars and the dawning realization that we are becoming number 2 in the world have been insufficient to bring us together politically.

No, the breakthrough will come neither from charismatic repackaging of Presidential rhetoric nor magical unification around policy.  If there is to be a breakthrough, it must come from ordinary men and women, or, from a politician acting like one.

In our individual lives, not as Americans, but as human beings, we bridge our differences by simple gestures:  an act of kindness, forgiveness, and generosity, often without expectation of reciprocation or guarantee of success.   This is the real source of American greatness:  men and women who confirm our impulse for common decency by grace, modesty and humility, as parents, at work, and in their communities. 

Americans like this were so memorably depicted in the movies we flocked to for inspiration during the last depression and from parents and teachers who instilled in us the belief that you could get ahead in America and do it honestly.  Their memory is all but drowned out by the cult of egoism all around us, in sports, business, the media, religion, and, of course, politics. 

Our breakthrough as a people will not come from the podium of political calculation but from the well of personal commitment, from an ordinary person who transcends politics in a simple but extraordinary act. 

Like Rosa Parks refusing to walk to the back of the bus, perhaps a United States Senator will take a few steps across the aisle, pull a colleague from the rubble of partisanship and start leading the nation out of this ego-drenched, cliché-ridden, finger-pointing culture that threatens to permanently squelch our national spirit.  

That would be a story line we might be proud to tell our children when we teach them about what America did in the depression.

—-

Stu Brody is former Chair of the New York State Democratic Rural Conference and teaches Business and Political Ethics at SUNY New Paltz.

The Coakley Chasm and Unbridgeable Depths of American Politics

January 28, 2010 Leave a comment

The Coakley Chasm and Unbridgeable Depths of American Politics

By Stuart H. Brody

Last week, Martha Coakley failed to execute a political assignment so routine that few people gave any thought to the enormous consequences of failure; that is, before it occurred.   She was defeated in her Senate race by Scott Brown whose victory may have spelled the doom of the health care bill that had been the life’s work of his predecessor and the signature domestic issue of his President.  The next day, President Obama shed his customary equilibrium and began attacking the banks in a populist imitation of Brown.

This is but the latest rotation in a cycle of disappointment that has become a tradition in American politics:  expectation of great leadership, brought low by partisanship, followed by stalemate and renewed clamor for deliverance by a fresh messenger of change. 

Last night, in his State of the Union last week, The President sought relief from this story line in his reminiscence of our ancestors pulling together in times of economic upheaval and transformation, to “respond with bold action and big ideas”. Our founding itself was the most remarkable transformation and one of the biggest ideas in history.   The founders dazzled the world with their inventiveness and inspired two centuries of descendants to sustain their noble work by collaboration and compromise.  

From what source though, does the President expect a modern revival of sacrifice and devotion to the common good?    He asked for it from the politicians assembled in the House Chamber last night, but he must know that they are incapable of providing it.   Like warring sects of a once common religion, the parties have sunk into the delusion of encrusted myth.

The Republican myth is the assertion that the “market” has the power to correct all abuses despite overwhelming evidence of its blindness to civil rights, labor fairness, anti trust violations, natural resource exploitation, securities fraud, campaign finance abuse, food and drug security and the list goes on.  In their free market zeal they have elevated cutthroat competition to the level of virtue and have thus abandoned not only the tenets of free enterprise but their faith in a government that has shown remarkable power to educate, heal, invent and build.

The Democrats cling with equal fervor to the myth of government as the prime societal force for good, with the power to ameliorate human nature and deliver us to the threshold of utopia.  Democrats act as if by taxing regulating and spending they can soften every blow of capitalism.  Democrats foist on government these expectations of moral improvement while decrying the very vehicle—our free enterprise system—that has delivered incalculable economic improvement.

The extremism of these political ideologies stymies cooperation and subverts our collective aspirations.   In asserting their agendas, our Senators and Representatives behave in the halls of Congress like members of a radical cult:  dialog through denunciation, communication through confrontation, insistence on personal infallibility, consistency at all costs and the equation of rigidity of belief with personal integrity. 

And so, the chasm gets wider, the excuses for not acting more convoluted, the blame more fierce, the problems deeper and the solutions more distant. 

This past year has made clear that even the charisma of a natural born leader –that old standby of American political revival-is insufficient to bridge this chasm.   Expecting that President Obama can reinvent himself to cure this turmoil is unrealistic and deepens the cycle of disappointment.

Nor can the breakthrough come from some magical unity over policy.  Current economic stresses, looming environmental catastrophe, the chokehold of dependence on foreign oil, freelance terrorism, two endless wars and the dawning realization that we are becoming No. 2 in the world have been insufficient to bring us together politically.

No, the breakthrough will not come from some charismatic repackaging of Presidential rhetoric or magical unification around policy because the politicians, their parties and their egos have become too inflexible to bend to reality.   The breakthrough must come from ordinary men and women, or, from a politician acting like one.

In our individual lives, not as Americans, but as human beings, we bridge our differences by simple gestures:  an act of kindness, forgiveness, and generosity, often without expectation of reciprocation or guarantee of success.   This is the real source of American greatness:  men and women who confirm our impulse for common decency by grace, modesty and humility, as parents, at work, and in their communities. 

Americans like this were so memorably depicted in the movies we flocked to for inspiration during the last depression and from parents and teachers who instilled in us the belief that you could get ahead in America and do it honestly.  Their memory is all but drowned out by the cult of egoism all around us, in sports, business, the media, religion, and, of course, politics. 

Our breakthrough as a people will not come from the podium of political calculation but from the well of personal commitment, from an ordinary person who transcends politics in a simple but extraordinary act. 

Like Rosa Parks refusing to walk to the back of the bus, perhaps a United States Senator will take a few steps across the aisle, pull a colleague from the rubble of partisanship and start leading the nation out of this ego-drenched, cliché-ridden, finger-pointing culture that threatens to permanently squelch our national spirit.  

That would be a story line we might be proud to tell our children when we teach them about what America did in the depression.

“Say it Ain’t So, Joe”

December 16, 2009 Leave a comment

Albany is in high rhetoric mode, again:  this time in service of a call to arms on ethics reform in the wake of Joe Bruno’s conviction on corruption charges.  In a State where high minded sentiment rarely leads to meaningful action, New Yorkers are understandably skeptical.

A call for new ethics laws, like many reform initiatives, are born of moral outrage after the commission of highly publicized abuses.  Yet, precisely because they are reactive, these measures often fail to identify the real problems or fall short of correcting them.  Like new airport security checks taken in reaction to the latest terrorist threat rather than in anticipation of future ones, expedient half measures deplete public confidence rather than bolster it.

New Yorkers understand that ethical rules don’t make people ethical.  At best, such rules identify a narrow subset of conflicts of interest and set legal boundaries around them.  They do not eliminate conflicts, or guide public officials in the manner of justly resolving them.  That skill belongs to the world of integrity.

Integrity, is a broad personal commitment, not a narrow legal compulsion, to act in a manner beneficial to the community as a whole rather than what might otherwise appear in one’s immediate personal interest.   The founding fathers understood the tension between the individual pursuit of happiness, proclaimed as a natural right in the Declaration of Independence, and the promotion of the general welfare which is a central mission of the Constitution.

The problem is that politicians, like most people, tend to identify the general welfare with their own personal happiness.     In surveys on ethics, most respondents say that the word “ethical” means “what my feelings tell me is right”.  Relying on feelings is a pretty shaky way to fashion a moral structure.

To illustrate this, in another survey, 98% of Americans surmised that they were ”a better than average” judge of character.  Obviously 48% of them are wrong.  On any question involving right or wrong, one’s “feelings” will be as often wrong as right.

A basis more substantial than instinct to “do the right thing”–which everyone seems to believe they possess–is needed to induce political leaders to accord “the right thing” as much thought as rewarding campaign contributors, re-election maneuvering, party leadership ambitions and pecuniary gain.

Something more substantial than an ethics pledge will be necessary to curb the way our nation’s leaders act in the halls of Congress:  demonizing opponents, dialog through denunciation, communication through confrontation, consistency at all costs and the equation of integrity with rigidity of beliefs, usually their own.

It simply can’t be that politicians have no capacity to do the right thing.  They are capable of introspection, discernment of duty, personal commitment and taking risks for the common good–essential elements of integrity.  That’s why many of them went into politics in the first place.  Yet this impulse is all too often blunted by the cold, hard enforcing steel of partisanship and highlights the need, not for new ethics laws, but ways to induce our political leaders to realign along fault lines of integrity rather than political ones.

For the moment though, it seems as if the only game in town is party politics and we the people are sidelined.  Is it any wonder then, that Joe Bruno, the ultimate team captain in this brutal sport quoted Yogi Berra in assessing his fate?  “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Ironically, though, he may have unwittingly struck an important chord:  we’d better pray it ain’t over because we have a long way to go to rescue our democracy.

Stu Brody is the former Chair of the Democratic Rural Conference and founder of www.integrityintensive.com, an  integrity training resource for young political leaders and public affairs professionals.

Not My Ox, Yours!

October 16, 2009 Leave a comment

 

The Common Weal in America Has Run Dry?

By Stuart H. Brody

Comments of Stu Brody to Empire Page Roundtable  October 2009.

The question posed to this Roundtable is whether Americans should willingly pay for public benefits of which they will never partake.  In my mind most striking aspect of this question is that it needs be asked at all.  Not that a democratic people shouldn’t debate the role of their commitments to the nation’s collective well being, but that the debate in modern America has taken such a narrow and selfish turn. 

Our very founding and survival was built on enormous compromises to serve union and freedom, even if particular interests were ill served in the short run.   We can point to the Golden Age of the Senate when Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, and others, stitched together complex regional accommodations to keep the nation together—and allow it to grow—forestalling war for thirty years.

We have a history of sharing the privileges and bounty of our rich nation freely in order to expand prosperity.   DeToqueville marveled at what he termed our volunteerism and boosterism.  Still, today, you can hardly visit an American town or county that does not boast large community service calendars and festivals for public entertainment and community promotion.

We are also a massively generous people–by far the highest per capita contributors to charity in the world, notwithstanding our collective skepticism about forking over tax money each April.

I believe, that deep down, most people hold as one of the blessed privileges of freedom, the free partaking of the grandeur that our wealth has produced. 

The parks of our great cities and our great public monuments and museums offered the world weary urban poor a moment of tranquility in which to nurture their dreams, dreams which, by God’s grace, were realized by so many.

Walking in a national forest, as others have commented, imparts a power of belonging that is unmatched, and diminished, if you have to pay for it.

Yet we live now in a time of stinginess.  From Congress with its earmarks, to Wall Street with its bonuses, the rule of the day is “take the money and run” before anyone catches up with you.

Just weeks ago, Senator John Kyle from Arizona actually complained in a Senate Committee debate on health care that he was required to pay for a health care policy that included maternity benefits since he would never use them.

In our own state, the best plans to fund the  MTA which fuels our most potent economic machine—the City of New York—fell victim to the narrowest of selfish interests in our legislature.

Like a family bitterly divided over a contested will, in America, the bonds of common devotion have been loosened by fierce and mindless emotion, and often it’s our politicians leading this desperate movement.  Too many cloak narrow interests with passionate rhetoric while subjecting anyone who disagrees with them to intemperate and often vile denunciation. 

How can such men and women summon the grace and generosity to provide for the general welfare and inspire others to achieve what Jefferson called the most noble ambition of free men:  pursuing individual happiness while contributing to the collective well being.

Perhaps they can learn something of public courage from Supervisor Mary Ellen Keith of tiny Franklin, New York who was voted out of office twenty years ago for spending the last remaining federal revenue sharing funds to purchase land for a park, instead of putting it in to the General Fund, because she wanted “something lasting.” 

Now, in her eighties, and freshly returned to office, she spends every summer morning making 100 sandwiches for the sons and daughters of her electors, grateful for her foresight.

The Discrete Charm of Mayor Bloomberg’s Power Grab

April 14, 2009 1 comment

Michael Bloomberg has been acknowledged in most quarters as a good mayor, combining a steady managerial hand with bold approaches to tough problems. No one has succeeded in making the argument that his wealth has worked against him, or corrupted him. In fact, to many, his wealth has insulated him from the temptations befalling mere mortal politicians: making deals for campaign contributions.

However, there is another temptation to which he is apparently vulnerable and from which his wealth has not shielded him: the charms of eternal power.

At the outset of his tenure, Bloomberg promised he wouldn’t run for more than two terms. He repeatedly emphasized his support of the City’s term limits rule, and once called any effort to revise the limits “disgusting.” Yet as the end of his second and presumably final term loomed, he retracted this view, concluding that he is indispensable to the people of New York.

The mayor’s 11th hour conversion from supporter of term limits, to opponent, has provoked anemic opposition. Fifty city council members, or at least the 29 voting to allow him to run for a third term, concluded that their will, or the bending of it to Mr. Bloomberg’s, was a fair exercise of their legislative power, even in the face of two referenda by the voting public to the contrary.

Leading advocates of term limits, like the redoubtable Ron Lauder, who, for better or worse became the public face of term limits, lost his zeal for the fight, and caved. The teachers union, presumably ill disposed to the mayor because of his steadfast support for chancellor Joe Klein, also backed down from a resolution opposing Bloomberg’s bid.

Mayor Bloomberg now finds himself sailing calm waters in the port of his ambition. In the wake of the recent dismissal by the United States Justice Department of a civil rights challenge to the third term, the tepid response in Albany to a Senate bill restricting his effort, and his endorsement by the City’s Republican parties even after the Mayor spurned them to run for President as an Independent, no real obstacles remain to Bloomberg’s running for a third term. Incredibly, this startling power grab appears inevitable.

So the question becomes, if no one seems to care that he’s riding roughshod over his own promises, the judgment of his fellow New Yorkers in two referenda, and the resulting law limiting him to two terms, then what is really so wrong about what he’s doing? Or to put it another way: if the leaders of our democracy don’t seem to care, are his actions really a threat to democracy?

They are, and here’s why: because politicians are not supposed to change their minds in bald pursuit of their self interest, and they’re also not supposed to maintain power for its own sake. Sound old fashioned? Self-restraint in the face of the temptations of power is what men and women of integrity do. They do it to inspire and maintain public confidence in the capacity of elected representatives to do right by the people that elected them. Each time a politician disappoints that expectation, we lose a little more confidence in a system we were taught once to believe in.

Faith in the political system is no less important to our spirit as free men and women, then confidence in the financial system is to our economic well being. We are living in the painful reality of what happens when people lose confidence in the financial system. Yet the same collapse has been occurring, if more gradually and less violently, to our political system over the last 30 years.

After the loss of anything precious, we lose daily touch with the value of what we’ve lost. We close off the space where our hopes once nourished our optimism. A plurality of New York City voters — 46% — believe the term limit extension approved by the City Council for the benefit of Mr. Bloomberg is not the right thing for the city, yet they believe his continued service of mayor is.

Clearly, then, there is a wide gulf between rectitude and convenience, and this gap is the breeding ground of cynicism.  It takes a leader to close the gap not exploit it. While claiming his indispensability for leadership, the mayor forfeited its most essential aspect: respect for the people’s confidence in their leaders.

Yet, even if he wins in November, the mayor’s resulting political harvest may be a barren one. The people have a funny way of rebelling against those who manipulate the rules, especially these days, when the millions who obey them are now compelled to bail out the few who consistently broke them. Explosive reactions in democracies are often set up on a long fuse. Last November’s national election is a case in point.

New Yorkers may not rebel now, nor at the polls in November, but they’ll get there, as the problems of transportation, education and public safety are seen by New Yorkers in the new light of the mayor’s opportunism.  Just another politician is how he’ll be viewed;  a fitting return on Mayor Bloomberg’s investment in the cynicism of the electorate but a disappointing conclusion to a career that at once seemed so fresh and honest.

Democracy’s Misfit: the Interim Senate Appointment

January 14, 2009 1 comment

Last week the United States Senate managed to occupy center stage on the national scene, no small feat given the array of economic catastrophes unfolding daily. Yet, the spotlight is hardly flattering to the Senate leadership.

The Senate refused to seat Roland Burris, the person appointed by beleaguered Illinois Governor Rod Blagoivitch to fill the seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

With startling irony, Senate leader Reid invoked a “qualifications” clause in Senate rules to reject Mr. Burris, a man who would be, were he actually seated, one of the most qualified in the Senate.

Reid has since relented from this untenable position but the whole episode displays the glaring inadequacies of the gubernatorial appointment method of United States Senators.

Like a joker in the political deck, the gubernatorial appointment turns the political game on its head, substituting the objectives of one person, the Governor, for the judgment of millions. This curious practice deviates from democratic custom and is constitutionally unwarranted.

The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, in addressing United States Senate vacancies, afforded discretion to the States in the issuance of “writs of elections” or, to put it plainly, special elections. The Seventeenth Amendment authorizes temporary appointments but arguably only to ensure representation pending a speedy special election.

This plain intent of the Amendment was undermined by the New York Public Officers Law which allows, in fact, requires, long appointment periods like the two years New Yorkers will be forced to wait before directly electing Hillary Clinton’s successor. In 1968, Governor Rockefeller’s appointment of Bobby Kennedy’s successor lasted 29 months before direct election.

Other states have implemented the provisions of the Seventeenth Amendment more flexibly, including, oddly enough, Illinois which affords the Illinois legislature the power, as yet unexercised, to call for a special election.

In two states, we are now watching the unseemly byproducts of this undemocratic practice. In Illinois, it tempted the wayward Governor off a moral cliff, and probably a legal one, when he discussed selling the Senate seat to the highest bidder, but it has also diverted Illinois law enforcement officials from prosecuting him, as they focused simultaneously on blocking his appointing authority.

In New York, the effect is no less distracting: While David Paterson labors mightily to steady the ship of New York State after the collapse of Wall Street, his concentration is inevitably undermined by the spectacle of–and the resulting media obsession with–the daughter of a fabled president imploring the Governor for a patronage job: a no-win situation for two of New York’s most admired leaders.

Even from the standpoint of party politics, Senator Clinton’s Democratic replacement may not reap the advantage of incumbency in 2010 that many predict. Whoever the appointment, he or she will be less compelling than the immensely popular Chuck Schumer, also running in 2010, for a full term, and perhaps easier electoral prey to Republican appeals.

The unpopularity of the interim Senate appointment process with the public is revealed in the statistical fact that the overwhelming majority of such appointees have been defeated in the next election. The public has an uncanny way of rebelling against fiat, and this undemocratic procedure is surely that.

It is time now for the New York State legislature to revise the current statute that requires this undemocratic interruption in the people’s right to determine their representatives. A quick special election will not only elicit the public’s respect, but also buttress the budget trimming efforts of a Governor who has done much in his short tenure to earn it.

 

Stu Brody is President of Integrity Intensive (www.integrityintensive.com) which provides workshops on practicing integrity to young politicians and

public servants, and former Chair of the New York State Democratic Rural Conference.