All About ‘Three Men in a Room’? It’s Not That Simple
The adjective “dysfunctional” is permanently affixed to the New York State Legislature. Accounts of three men in a room — the governor, speaker, and majority leader — deciding absolutely everything is an exaggeration and an oversimplification, but it embodies more than a germ of truth and is thus a very informative caricature. What follows is our view of New York’s political landscape.
Everything state government deals with — housing, health, banking, energy, education, and so forth — engages the close attention of thousands of people, many of whom exercise great leverage on what the three men decide once they’re in the room and the doors are closed. Banks, insurance companies, hospitals, trial lawyers, doctors, beer and wine distributors, teachers, healthcare workers, real estate developers — all the important interests in the state — maintain lobbying operations in Albany, as do colleges and universities, city and county governments, and non-profit groups of every description.
The Policy Networks
Each of these interests is part of an informal network that includes the committee chairmen in each legislative chamber, the relevant agency heads, high-level legislative and executive staff, lobbyists, the heads of trade associations, and many other insiders.
So, for example, colleges and universities might be thought of as part of the higher education network, banks as part of the banking network, and so forth. The members of each of these network have common, conflicting, and overlapping interests. In the higher education network, for example, in addition to government officials, are private and public colleges and universities, student groups, and faculty unions. There are little-known players whose interests are in the capital budget and who want the state to finance new construction for higher education entities. Construction unions, though not part of the higher education network, may spend political capital to advance such projects. Public officials, for financial and political rather than pedagogical purposes, may prefer bricks and mortar to teaching faculties.
Each policy area and the elements within it is a complicated stew of political and policy calculations. And it is very rare for anything of any significance to move in Albany without the members of the relevant policy network, and others whose interests are affected, being aware of it. Depending on whether and how an issue impacts them, they will ignore it or try to advance, oppose, or modify the outcome.
It’s a common mistake made by outsiders who enlist the support of, say, the head of a teachers’ union, to advance causes that have nothing to do with education. Tenants, for example, may seek stronger rent regulation and ask the union head to sign a letter as a member of a broad-based coalition of progressive groups. The insiders understand that the union leader won’t spend time or political capital on matters that don’t affect the union’s members directly. She or he may be an important player in shaping education policy, but isn’t part of the housing and real estate policy network, and thus will have little impact within it. It’s just a name on a letterhead.
Within these networks, the non-governmental players join forces in trade associations, most often headed and staffed by former government officials. The associations draft, arrange for the introduction of, and track legislation and regulations; they testify before committees; serve as job clearinghouses; contribute money; and in general stay on top of everything that impacts their members.
The largest interests employ their own lobbyists, who pursue agendas outside of the trade associations to which they belong. These lobbyists may be employees who hold titles such as “vice-president for government relations” or they may be contract lobbyists, members of the law and lobbying firms that populate every large state capital, major city hall, and Washington.
The most effective lobbyists enjoy good relationships with at least one of the three men in the room or with those who influence them. They raise political money from their clients and give it to politicians. A lobbyist with a large list of clients may be lobbying on a particular issue for one client, but the fact that the lobbyist represents many other contributors isn’t lost on the politician.
Albany is a community whose members interact socially and professionally within a small geographic area. They have a finely calibrated sense of the power, leverage, and character of the people they deal with.
Politics, Ideology Aren’t Identical
Non-governmental interests initiate most of the important legislation. Politics is a reactive business. Because they combined both governmental power and Big Money influence, Nelson Rockefeller and Michael Bloomberg, who book-ended a half-century of New York government and politics, were able to materialize their own visions more easily than any of the governors or mayors who occupied those offices in the intervening years. That includes the present occupant. Both Rockefeller and Bloomberg promoted the notion that they were “socially liberal.”
Republicans can’t win elections in New York or in the country for that matter without a great deal of myth-making. Both men were big borrowers and big spenders. In fact, contrary to popular myth, it was Rockefeller’s “moral obligation” borrowing — a device invented by John Mitchel, the bond lawyer who became Richard Nixon’s attorney general — and the plague of locusts moral obligation financing attracted in the form of underwriters, bond lawyers, real estate developers, meretricious politicians, and many other insiders that brought on New York’s fiscal crisis and the age of austerity we’re still living with. It wasn’t Ed Koch but the union pension funds that saved New York from bankruptcy. But that is a story for another day.
As with New York City Council members, few state legislators have meaningful power or more than modest decision-making influence, far less than the top staff people who work for one of the three men in the room. With few exceptions state legislators are foot soldiers. One of their main functions is to keep their own constituents away from the real decision-makers.
We’re mindful that this view of things is too cynical for some, but it is what it is. Politics isn’t ideology and the people who have been blinded by Big Money’s ideological smokescreens have paid a terrible price, and are still paying it.
The speaker and majority leader, in addition to wielding governmental power, oversee their own parties’ political operations in the legislature. These include each party’s campaign committee in each house. They may select candidates, distribute campaign money, and even oversee field operations that local parties once performed. Lobbyists give money to the campaign committees that the leaders redistribute to individual members. They also direct the distribution of state — and public authority — money. This often goes to legislators who are running in the few pieces of political geography that haven’t been made safe for one party or the other through the redistricting process: for the most important objective of any legislative party is to gain and hold the majority. The minority gets table scraps. Because congressional and legislative districts are redrawn every ten years, the individual legislators’ political careers, including the state’s congressmen, are in the leader’s hands.
Committee assignments and chairmanships, hiring professional — and not so professional — staffs, the flow of legislation, compensation beyond the statutory pay scale — all are within the leader’s discretion. Even decisions about office space, equipment, and personnel frequently go through the leader. The list goes on.
His political power extends beyond the legislature to judgeships, nominations for various offices, and leverage over the state’s most important business interests. Generally, once the leader is chosen by the members of his own party, he accumulates too much power to be challenged. He serves until he dies, retires, or goes to prison. His ability to reward and punish the members of his own party, his leverage over lobbyists, business interests, labor unions, politicians outside the legislature, and all the other interests in the state are too much to resist.
‘When You Strike at a King, You Must Kill Him’
Emerson’s warning to would-be insurgents is certainly true in Albany. Those who seek and fail to topple a leader are quickly stripped of their legislative positions and whatever other benefits they enjoy. They’re lucky if their seats in the legislative chamber aren’t physically removed. That’s why such revolts are rarely attempted. It did happen during the Pataki-D’Amato era, when the two men determined to overthrow a senate majority leader and replace him with Joseph Bruno, who was more in sync with their intention to remove everything from the state that wasn’t nailed down.
Rudy Giuliani had predicted as much when he supported Mario Cuomo against George Pataki, then an obscure state senator. It was 1994. Sen. D’Amato, then in control of New York’s Republican Party, tapped Pataki as the party’s nominee. Giuliani wanted to get rid of D’Amato and take control of the party himself. He endorsed Cuomo, a Democrat, telling reporters, “If the D’Amato-Pataki crew ever gets control, ethics will be trashed.”
Wrong on the politics, but right about the ethics. Wherever state government intersected with private profits, there you were likely to find D’Amato or one of his associates. And George Pataki, who entered politics as a man of modest means and left the governor’s office as a wealthy man, was never far behind.
The Staffs: Hidden Power
The big decisions, those that involve large numbers of people and large sums of money, directly involve the governor and the two legislative leaders, hence the idea of three men in a room. No woman has ever been in the room. Nor, until the ascension of David Paterson to the governorship, had there ever been a black person. But by the time something important works its way into that room, the top staff aides have sifted through the political, policy, money, and personal issues and narrowed the options.
These aides carry broad portfolios and hold various titles. They include the secretary to the governor, chief counsel, budget director, maybe a press officer, the secretaries of the finance and ways and means committees, and a few others. The power that each aide enjoys depends on his or her relationship with one of the three men for whom he works. Everyone who does serious business knows who the real players are. They are in constant negotiation, not only with their counterparts in the other party, but more often with players in their own party and lobbyists for various interests.
If you were to walk into the office of the secretary to the governor, for example, you might see a half-dozen buttons on the telephone lit up, blinking away as important players around the state queue up to speak for a minute or two. The callers who get through aren’t schmoozing; they’re doing business. The secretary represents the governor and thus transcends and cuts across the policy networks.
The political power of the two legislative leaders likewise encompasses all the interest groups. Each of the three key players is represented in each policy network by one or more of these aides.
Academic models don’t offer much insight into this system. In this — and we say it respectfully — they can be likened to travel guides that describe the museums, restaurants, hotels, and landmarks, calculate the distances, schedules, and modes of transportation, and sometimes offer an account of an area’s history to suggest how it got to be the place it is today. These guides may have much to offer the traveler who plans to spend days or even weeks in an unfamiliar place. But doing business in a foreign country requires a deeper understanding of the culture, the mores, and the players. In the foreign country that is our state’s government, people who invest their money or who have serious political issues understand the need for an insider who can represent them. The local legislators, though they may be consulted and ought not to be offended, as perhaps this column may offend, are likely to be more tour guide than facilitator.
Local election campaigns that emphasize the voting records and character of the candidates rather than their party affiliations are misleading, often deliberately so. When, for example, a Republican state senator carves out a reputation as tenant-friendly, it’s likely that his district contains many rent-regulated developments. He may be allowed off the Republican reservation, which is reliably owned by the real estate lobby, to introduce meaningless legislation for tenants so as to keep the district in Republican hands. That dispensation thus contributes to the Republican Senate majority. This in turn ensures that meaningful tenant-friendly legislation will never be enacted.
The Democratic Party insiders are tied up with New York’s real estate lobby as well. If nothing else, the former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s conviction exposes that truth. But the ties that bind are looser because the constituent base is different. Clear-eyed Democratic voters who turn out in sufficient numbers can counter Big Money’s influence. That’s what today’s politics is about. That’s what this presidential election is about. That’s what Fed Up New Yorkers is about. If in New York State, the seats of all three men were held by the Democratic Party, it would be somewhat easier for attentive voters to pry the real estate lobby’s grip — and that of other Big Money interests — from the throats of poor, working- and middle-class people.
In subsequent columns we’ll explore the many calls for reform of this system. Most reforms call for spreading the power more broadly among legislators. This seems like a good idea on its face. But we think it’s more complicated than that. New York is a strong-governor state. The other men in the room embody the legal powers constitutionally assigned to the legislature. Unless they bring that power into the room with them, that is, unless each speaks for his own legislative majority, the governor becomes pretty much the only man in the room.
Term limits for legislative leaders, or limits imposed by secret ballots within the legislative party caucuses, may be worth considering.
We’re just throwing an idea on the table. Others will have different, maybe better ideas. Ours may not be politically feasible. They may disagree with our description of the political landscape. We invite their comments. We don’t own the truth. We hope that insiders will use the platform this paper provides to tell their own truths. Let’s see whether we can inform and educate the people and encourage them to vote in their own best interests. Many legislators have called for reforming the system. But little changes.
This is one reform where the rubber hits the road. The legislator who calls for a secret ballot on term limits for the leadership may not be looked on kindly by the very person who holds all those political cards.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We asked a long-time insider whose views we respect for his comments. Here’s what he said:“The legislative process is a hundred-ring or even a thousand-ring circus. This is related to your description of the many ‘policy networks’ that exist. Simultaneously, hundreds of issues are being worked on in different little ‘rings’ . . . and frequently these ‘rings’ finalize an agreement on the issue being discussed. BUT the ultimate power of the three men is that, at any time, any one of them can pre-empt the workings of one of these ‘rings’ and take over the negotiations on an issue or transfer those negotiations to their own staffs . . . . Your discussion of the policy networks is particularly informative. But, either fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t think it is always true that ‘nothing of any significance moves in Albany without the members of the relevant policy network and others whose interests are affected being aware of it.’ Sometimes, the ‘three men’ agree to do something without giving the relevant policy networks a heads-up or a chance to react.”
Written for fedupnewyorkers.org