The federal corruption case against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has prompted more calls for reform of the legislature, which has seen more than two dozen members (and counting) leave office under ethical or criminal clouds in the past 15 years. With U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara hinting that more state officials may be in hot water, the bandwagon is likely to gain even more momentum.
But what, exactly, would effective “reform” entail? Good-government groups such as Citizens Union have a standard checklist, including more thorough disclosure of outside incomes, greater transparency in state grant-making, a ban on the use of campaign funds for legal fees and other personal purposes, and tougher penalties for violations of the public trust. Taxpayer financing of political campaigns is another hobby-horse in some quarters, though campaign contributions had virtually nothing to do with the Silver allegations or with most of the other recent high-profile cases of state legislators who left office accused of some wrongdoing.
Far less attention is given to another reform already embraced by 15 other states: term limits for legislators. First elected to the Assembly in 1976 and speaker since 1994, Silver owes much of his power to sheer longevity. If New York had adopted a reasonable term-limits law back in the ’70s—say, limiting legislative service to no more than six terms in either house, or a total of 20 years combined—Silver’s legislative career would’ve ended decades ago.
Term limits would also strike at a problem more pervasive in Albany than corruption: legislative careerism. The longer they serve, the more many Assembly and Senate members naturally seek to preserve their positions. This, combined with the power of legislative leaders, gives rise to an insular culture that makes individual lawmakers overly reluctant to advance new ideas, challenge entrenched special interests, or demand higher ethical standards.
To combat careerism and empower rank-and-file members, term limits should be introduced, along with three other changes: Close the taxpayer-guaranteed (and longevity-rewarding) defined-benefit public pension for legislators and other elected officials— instead, offer them a defined-contribution plan, such as the one sponsored by the State University of New York; eliminate the leader-controlled pay stipends now received by three-quarters of legislators; and equalize members’ staff budgets.
Of course, there will never be a way to outlaw greed and dishonesty. Term limits alone certainly won’t do it; three term-limited, full-time state senators in California have faced criminal charges in the past two years. But in seeking to minimize public corruption in New York, would-be reformers should remember the famous maxim of nineteenth-century Tammany pol George Washington Plunkitt: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.” Plunkitt would have marveled at the greater “opportunities” created by the vast and complex regulatory state New York lawmakers (and the governor) now control.
For example, some of the most damaging allegations against Silver stem from his power to shape or reshape rent control—a policy that doesn’t even exist in most of America. Investigators also have focused on the granting of lucrative tax abatements for Manhattan luxury apartment buildings, whose developers promise to set aside a quota of units for “affordable housing.” This kind of tax break only exists in places where government regulation—controlled, again, largely out of Albany—has distorted housing markets. Silver is also charged with steering $500,000 in state research grants to an oncologist, who in turn allegedly became a source of lucrative asbestos-lawsuit referrals to Silver’s law firm. The federal criminal complaint also alleges that the speaker directed a state grant to a nonprofit whose board members include the oncologist’s wife, and that he helped find a job for the doctor’s son at one of the countless other social-services groups that perennially benefit from the legislature’s budgetary largesse. The bottom line is that New York’s propensity for big-government overreach has helped create and sustain what Bharara has called a “cauldron of corruption” in the state capitol.
Federal charges aside, Sheldon Silver undeniably had been the leading champion of New York’s worst tax-and-spend habits. If his successor adopts similar positions—translating into a continuing proliferation of legislatively generated red tape, special preferences, carve-outs, subsidies, and pork-barrel grant-making—the cauldron won’t stop simmering.