So who really holds the power in state government? Well, the governor and the Legislature make the rules. One can only wonder how and why these powerful forces exercise their muscles. In short, the answer is “Because they can.” Let’s just say that you are elected to one of these positions. Do you get any credit for having been there even if you do nothing? Of course not. In that case your gravestone might read, “Here lies Assemblyman Jean Jacques Schmertz, elected to both the Legislature and Governor’s Mansion where he did as close to nothing as he possibly could have.” Or it might read, “Did he do what the legislative bosses like the speaker told him to do? Of course he did.” College professors have a lot more leeway than legislators do, although they tell their public electors that they don’t let anyone push them around. If they want to get, they have to give. This lesson is taught early and often and repeated both subtly and loudly.
Oh, we all know that elected officials collect as much money to run for office as possible from people who want something from them. Is there anyone who doesn’t believe that? So they sponsor some silly bills that originated in the Legislature or with some powerful lobbyist, sprinkled with other feel-good measures, maybe protecting dogs and cats. Most legislators, however, are simply treading water.
The problem is that deep down in the back of Schmertz’s mind, he knew that he just didn’t count. He doesn’t have internal self-regard. It’s just part of a game, much like Monopoly in which you follow the rules in order to win. But what does “winning” actually mean if you are only passing run of the mill bills? It really is simple stuff. If you have a chance to buy or build hotels you do it. Quite simple, if you want to win. What is the actual contribution in the case of, say, climate change? On an assemblyman’s gravestone we might see that he once sponsored a bill laying out the composition of metal pipes or grabbing another piece of land from a property owner so that the state or local government could own a little more. Over the years I have monitored much of the legislation that Assembly members, senators and members of Congress have put forward, and while some of it makes marginal contributions to the public good, much of it is patently ridiculous.
As you walk the halls of the Legislature you think about all those people in whose footsteps you are walking? Did they really think that their posterity was insured because they knew how to play that version of Monopoly? Listen, I’ve talked to many people who have played the game and won the offices that they occupy. Their spouses are proud of them, so are their kids. When people speak of them, their words are often hushed and respectful. Sometimes they go through life and their names are not used, as in “The senator will have his dinner now.”
We all know how the game is played. Some people believe that those of us who made our livings as college professors should earn less money than so called “public servants.” But how many people would subscribe to the idea that their legislators are, in fact, either “public” or “servants?” No, most of them are “self-serving” servants. Let’s face it — we all know that most legislators only spend a small part of their time, well, legislating. In some cases, they make more money than their public salaries with other “outside” jobs in the law or lobbying or academia. I actually recall one academic at Queens College who had the chutzpah to earn a full-time salary at City University while “serving” in the Legislature at the same time.