Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Who Will Bell the Cat?

Barry Blasts Bosses

Chides 'Reformers'

By Henry J. Stern
February 17, 2010

Note: here is a link to a puzzle that we received by e-mail yesterday from David Levine of Florida. We send it to you for your pleasure and possible edification. Let me know whether you enjoyed it.

For the last few months, we have written a parade of articles about the legislature, which is not only dysfunctional but self-serving. Some columns are about individuals in trouble because of their own greed, others are about a system which frustrates honest men and women and allows the defeat of legislation by unseen powers.

For generations, civic organizations have been complaining about Albany. In recent years, these lamentations have intensified. The Brennan Center for Justice, which is a research organization at New York University Law School, produced its magnum opus in 2004, referring to the New York State legislature as "the most dysfunctional legislature in the nation". Since then, despite pressure from editorial boards of newspapers around the state, the activity of civic organizations demanding reform, and the complete absence of any reasoned defense of existing rules and privileges, little change has taken place. In fact, political bosses are as powerful as ever, in the Assembly enormous power is concentrated in the Speaker, who is the ablest politician in the state, in part by simply being rational. The Senate is anarchic and corrupt, swollen with patronage, at the mercy of its least ethical members, the laughingstock of the political universe...

A book by Francis S. Barry, "The Scandal of Reform", (2009, Rutgers University Press) deals with "the grand failures of New Yorks political crusaders and the death of nonpartisanship." We recommend it to you, particularly its first half. The next two paragraphs are quoted from the book jacket:

"No city in the world has seen more intense political battles between bosses and reformers than New York, which is home to America's original party machine, Tammany Hall, and its most spectacular urban corruption scandals. In these battles, reformers have always presented themselves as white knights, gallantly crusading for good government against the petty and corrupt hacks who are driven by self-interest. So it remains today.

"But, as [Barry] makes clear, this good versus evil storyline is mostly a myth -- an urban legend perpetuated by a reform community that has always been more self-righteous than right and more interested in power than in democracy."

Our judgment is not that of Mercutio, who said with some bitterness, "A plague on both your houses." We believe that corrupt and complacent public officials, whose primary concerns are their own enrichment, reelection and accumulation of power and influence are a much greater threat to public welfare than the generally well-intentioned but often inept idealists who try to limit the political machinations and irresponsible expenditures that have brought New York State to the brink of bankruptcy.

In our judgment, the main problem is not the money that public officials steal or extort, which can be counted in the millions, but the amount they give away due to rewards or pressures, which runs into the billions. A sweetened pension, for example, passed one midnight to appease a union leader, will be paid out for eternity. When the commuter tax was killed in 1999, New York City lost hundreds of millions of dollars, not for one year, but forever. They pay, and play, for keeps.

One reason the current network of relationships has endured for so long is that, like some animals, it has the ability to heal itself when it is injured. When one man goes down, another is elected or appointed to take his place, and learns the ropes just as a new inmate does when he enters prison. If the newbie fails to learn the customs of the institution, it will be the worse for him, since he is highly unlikely to effect change, unless he is killed in some bizarre manner and a minor scandal follows his death.

BTW, we use the male pronoun in this article because only one female in recent history, Assemblywoman Diane Gordon of Brooklyn, was forced from office in 2008 when she was convicted of the felonies of bribe receiving and official misconduct. She had demanded that a developer build a large private house, valued at $500,000, for her personal habitation, if she helped him to obtain some city-owned land. She now does live in a big house. Her trial and conviction received little media attention because, after all, this was in Brooklyn, which is not the part of the city with which mainstream media are most concerned.

The irony in all this is that the system is self-perpetuating. People are elected to public office. Some were crooks to start with. Some obtained their nomination by paying off political leaders, and try to recoup their investment. Others become corrupt because of the opportunities available to them in exchange for their votes or their influence. There are big fish and small fry, but their mouths are always open, waiting for dinner. And, as Brecht pointed out, "Even saintly folk may act like sinners unless they have their customary dinners."

Now the large majority of legislators do not take cash for their personal use. Some of those who do have been caught. But the majority receives campaign contributions, and they are, in general, legal if within certain limits. The problem is that the votes and opinions of quite a few legislators are shaped by their contributors. Indeed, there is an ethic in town that if you have taken money from someone long enough, you are morally obligated to vote as he wishes. Otherwise, you would be cheating him, and that is a violation of a personal code of honor, more important to some people than any state statute or code of ethics.

These networks, where elected officials need to raise funds every two years, and the only people who care to give them money are people who want something from them, generate a Petri dish in which favoritism and cronyism flourish. "Pay to play" affects many aspects of the work of elected officials. The legislators identify more closely with the lobbyists, good buddies who are there from year to year, than annoying locals who show up only to make demands of them, and do not remember them when they seek re-election. Put it this way, with whom is a legislator more likely to have a drink, or a toke, if that were allowed.

The reformers are, however, a useful part of the legislative process. I am one of them (president of Citizens Union from 1990 to 1993, the Dinkins years) and I have been with them on all day bus trips to Albany, where they meet with legislators and listen to lies. They do not generally contradict too vigorously the lawmaker who has done them the courtesy of seeing them. More often than not, a younger staff member appears. He pays attention to what the reformers are saying. He promises that he will tell his boss, who at the moment is unfortunately detained at an important meeting. Maybe he will, maybe he won't. It scarcely matters. But the reformers need hope, and like a woman whose politician husband is cheating, or has slashed her face with a drinking glass, they wish for the best, and cling to that wish as long as they can.

In his recent column, Mayor Ed Koch advised good government groups to band together in an effort to defeat incumbants:

"In New York the public shudders at the mention of its dysfunctional legislature. But now an opportunity has presented itself for good government organizations to band themselves together and attack the problem in the upcoming November elections. They should review all the legislators closely, the good and the bad. Those who are good arent effective, and the bad are worse. Those good government groups, e.g., Citizens Union, Common Cause, Urban League, the Brennan Center for Justice, New York Civic, League of Women Voters, The Hispanic Federation, and many others, should convene a meeting where they would discuss how best to achieve the goal of reforming both the Democratic and Republican parties by running candidates against the incumbents in the September primary.

"If incumbents are considered worthy of reelection, they could be given the opportunity to join the reformers by signing a sworn statement that they subscribe to a set of principles the reformers have agreed to and will vote to implement them should they win."

The same things go on year after year. Some reformers do not fully understand that the principal concern of elected officials is holding on to their offices, or finding better ones. As long as the reformers lack the capacity or inclination to do anything about their tenure, goo-goos (short for good government, first used in the 1890's by their critics), they will continue to be the objects of amusement and mild derision. Many were well-born, and some believe that they are 'above politics'. In fact, politics is above them, because it deals with realities rather than visions, and politicians get some things done, whether you like them or not.

All that having been said, we turn to Rule 17-C, one of our favorites: "Who will bell the cat?"

StarQuest #648 02.17.2010 1545wds

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