As I look at the mess that has become New York politics, I am reminded of Thomas Jefferson. When asked by a local Philadelphian outside of the 1787 Constitutional Convention about what they created inside the secret conclave, Thomas Jefferson quipped, “a republic, if you can keep it.”
Over the past decade we have watched with great frequency as politician after politician has been convicted of a wide range of abuses of the public’s trust. These folks range from the most powerful in federal and state government to local power brokers looking to cash in on their political relationships. Dozen high ranking state and local officials have been caught in the cross hairs of federal and state authorities over the past several years.
The aforementioned alleged crimes have become so normalized in our culture that the voters have become numb to the headlines. As a student of politics I wonder if this is the way it has always been or is it the technology that has shined a light on the misdeeds of those operating in the shadows.
Perhaps the English Christian historian and former Member of Parliament, Sir John Dalberg-Acton was correct when he famously stated that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Given the rate at which the federal government has been rounding up these pols, it is not a stretch to think more arrests are on the horizon. While the government is doing their part to go after those who make up the foundation of this culture of corruption – it is our job to find solutions.
There are many good-government groups who have pushed for ethics and campaign finance reform in New York; however their efforts have been thwarted by the culture of the status quo. Many reformers believe that seizing on a possible vote for a New York Constitutional Convention (e.g., vote slated for November 7, 2017) will force the state legislature’s hand to pass meaningful reforms. In theory it makes sense, but the one variable that will dilute this purist approach is politics. The same people who are impotent on the issue of reforms are the same people who will set the rules and ultimately run the convention. As the recently published “Patronage, Waste and Favoritism, a Dark History of Constitutional Conventions” details, you only have to look at the mess that was the 1967 convention to see the political boondoggle at work. The best approach is to engage the citizenry and get them mobilized to act (e.g., vote).
The people of New York State have amended their constitution over 200 times through a public referendum. It costs must less than the estimated price tag of $320 million for another convention. Legislation is only half the equation, the other half is to proactively change the way we campaign for public office. That will require citizen engagement.
The prosecutors in their statements after arresting a pol almost always includes a not so subtle hint that we must change the way our political system does business. The message is not only directed at our representatives, but to New Yorkers themselves. The common response of many people is, “politicians are all crooked and I have to focus on surviving and providing for my family – this mess doesn’t directly affect me.” Wrong.
When a pol takes a payoff from someone in return for an illegal government backed loan guarantee for their business and that person defaults – the taxpayers are responsible for that loan. The net result is taxes go up to pay the loan back and you have less money in your pocket.
The only way to truly reform the system is to take back our government and bring back the citizen legislator. This can be done through a number of reforms that includes:
- extending a single term from two years to four years;
- setting legislative term limits;
- increasing legislator’s pay;
- setting up a bi-partisan state ethics review board staffed by former judges;
- allowing the State Comptroller to audit all government contracts; and
- explore the possibility of publicly financed elections.
Keeping in mind that the judicial system is not immune to corruption, we must reform the way our judges are selected and eliminate the stronghold that political party bosses have on the system. This is not FanDuel or DraftKings, judges are not fantasy sports players who can be collected or traded by non-elected power brokers. This is a serious problem and the people must address it.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were not wrong when they famously stated “this is a rigged system.” It’s only rigged if we continue our apathy towards the political system. Regardless of where you stand on the ideological pendulum, we can all agree we live in the greatest country in the world and our vote is the most powerful tool we have to change the status quo.
The ball is in our court. The people spoke in November and voted for a course correction and elected Donald Trump. January starts the state’s legislative session, so don’t let this important opportunity to reform our way of life pass by forever.
Anthony Figliola is a public policy expert and co-author of “Patronage, Waste and Favoritism – A Dark History of Constitutional Conventions.”