New York State politics is often derided as “three men in a room” making a decision. Whatever is agreed upon by those three men–the Governor (Andrew Cuomo), State Senate leader (currently, Republican John Flanagan), and the Assembly speaker (currently, Democrat Carl Heastie)–becomes law. With the Independent Democratic Conference in the Senate, it’s now grown to four men (with Senator Jeff Klein).
But sometimes, it falls apart, and the budget doesn’t get passed by the April 1 deadline. In 2004, it took the three men in a room until August, 133 days past the deadline to reach an agreement; that’s 19 weeks, over a third of the year.
It’s only been a few days now but so far, the men in the room aren’t getting it done.
How Three Men in a Room Usually Works
If you ask supporters of the status quo, they say it makes agreement much easier. Trying to get all 150 Assembly Members and 63 State Senators to agree on the budget with the Governor would mean that nothing would ever get done. Instead, the few men (and so far, it has only been men and, with Heastie being one of a few exceptions, almost all white men) can come to an agreement about, say, the budget.
The leaders of each body (and their staff) come together behind closed doors to figure out the budget. Outside the public eye, they can talk honestly and candidly about what they need, without worrying about the political consequences if it’s known that they are trying to deliver policies that benefit only a small but powerful segment of their supporters. The leaders can trade priorities until they find a compromise that works for everyone.
Once the three men do reach an agreement, their legislative bodies then vote for the agreement. That agreement can include completely unrelated topics included together for the sake of giving a little something to everyone. This year, in the budget debate, the three men are also agreeing to rules for Uber, Lyft, and other ride sharing upstate; raising the age at which people are considered an adult for criminal trials; and a plan for making the SUNY system tuition free for many.
While Cuomo declared that “Just because something is done behind closed doors doesn’t mean the process isn’t transparent,” the lack of disclosure aside from occasional leaks seems to belie his argument. There’s little public debate, virtually no chance for other legislators to propose alternatives or make changes, and the general public is often in the dark about what actually happened.
When It Doesn’t Work
The legislative leaders in the room have power only because they can lead their colleagues in the Senate or Assembly. In order for the three men to agree to a deal and have it stick, they must be able to convince the Assembly or Senate to vote for it. Their colleagues voted to make them the leader but then the leaders need to convince the politicians who chose them to listen.
In reality, it gets more complicated because the legislative leaders actually need to win a majority only from their own party. Each party elects its own leaders (with all the Democratic Assemblymembers or Senators voting for their Assembly leadership or Senate leadership, respectively). Then, the two parties go up against each other. Generally speaking, all the Democrats vote for the Democratic candidate and all the Republicans vote for the Republicans and whoever wins leads the chamber. (In the case of the Independent Democratic Conference, those eight Democrats actually voted for the Republican leadership).
As a result, in order to carry the day, the legislative leaders need to carry their party with them in order to enact the policies they want. That’s been the problem for US House Speaker Paul Ryan and John Boehner before him. They could agree to a plan with the President. However, when the plan came to a vote, the Tea Party’s Freedom Caucus would vote against the bill and it would fail.
The Resulting Corruption
In 2015, both Senate leader Dean Skelos (Republican from Long Island) and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (Manhattan Democrat) were arrested for corruption and then convicted. Many, including federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, blamed the three men in a room system for permitting corruption. It also raised questions about who knew what. Did Governor Andrew Cuomo know he was agreeing to fund projects that Silver and Skelos received bribes to support?
Over the last several years, dozens of legislators have gone to jail, including Skelos’ two Democratic predecessors who had also been in the room. Critics say that the lack of transparency contributes to the corruption. Because no one knows what is really happening, it’s difficult for anyone, except a federal prosecutor with the power of the FBI behind him, to hold the politicians accountable.
What’s Happening Now?
Earlier this week, state legislators agreed to an extension, ensuring that government will continue to operate until May 31. In the meantime, they are still negotiating on a variety of issues including whether Cuomo can unilaterally change spending without even the other two men in the room. Also on the table are affordable housing programs, charter school funding, and how teenagers who are accused of committing a crime should be treated.
Cuomo did announce that the three men agreed about the other contentious topics and the Senate and Assembly have passed some of the bills that make up the budget. However, it appears that talks between the leaders have broken down and both bodies have left Albany for their Easter recesses. While the budget is still negotiated, legislators won’t get paid, though Cuomo continues to earn a salary.
It’s unclear how the current stalemate will end but whatever happens, there will most likely continue to be three men in a room making decisions in Albany.
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