Congestion Drip: Is Sheldon Silver the Man to Blame?

The Assembly rules. Or, more specifically, the Democratic majority in the Assembly does.

As expected, the signature component of Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC program, congestion pricing, was killed this week by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his Democratic caucus.

As if to underline the absolute discretion that these 107 state legislators in the Assembly exercise over major state and city legislation, the final blow to the bill was administered on April 7 in private—a committee killed it before it could even come to the floor. Mr. Silver’s members had spoken to him, they said afterward—and he listened.

The mayor, who now heads into his last year and a half in office with little time to fashion any more sweeping plans to crystallize his legacy, was predictably incensed, saying afterward that the Assembly Democrats had shown “a special type of cowardice” in not allowing members—including the Assembly’s easily forgotten, utterly powerless Republican minority—an up-or-down say on the matter.

The day after, editorial boards, too, expressed their indignation at Mr. Silver’s actions. The Times led as follows: “Rarely does one man have a chance to do so much harm to so many.”

The speaker was unrepentant.

Asked by phone on April 8 about the mayor’s criticism, Mr. Silver said, “It’s funny. If you read the newspaper accounts, the front page of The New York Times is loaded with individual members telling The Times they’re not prepared to vote on this legislation. So, it’s not a matter of one person. I mean, I, as one person, probably would have voted for the bill. But clearly the case wasn’t made, or convincingly. That’s why the bill did not succeed. When you say one person, it works both ways. He’s one person as well.”

That is undeniably true. And as the system is currently structured, what happened to the mayor’s bill isn’t anything unusual at all.

The Democrats enjoy a veto-proof super-majority in the 150-member Assembly. This means that they can pass bills without involving any Republicans. It also means that as long as he keeps his Democratic members happy, Mr. Silver can be in charge for as long as he decides to stick around.

Not only does the outside criticism of the Assembly and Albany’s fetid political culture from the likes of Mr. Bloomberg or The New York Times—or Eliot Spitzer, for that matter—not hurt Mr. Silver, it actually helps him among his members, who are wont to rally around the man who stands up for them, and for the system in which they operate.

“Here’s a guy who survives by listening to his conference,” said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “They can vote him out in any minute. What would you rather have? A mayor that is mad at you for a year and a half, or a conference that is mad at you for a day and throws you out of office?”

The way the Democratic members see it, opening potentially contested votes up to all the members of the Assembly would be a voluntary abdication of party advantage. The will of the majority of Democrats, they point out, correctly, might not be done.

“If you had 44 Republicans and 32 Democrats, you could theoretically pass a bill that a majority of the Democratic conference opposed,” said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky of Westchester, who emerged as the vocal public leader of the opposition to congestion pricing. “That is not the way we run the system. And frankly, it’s not the way we should run the system.”

Assemblyman Jonathan Bing, a good-government type from the East Side of Manhattan, explained it by saying, “The idea that democracy did not occur here [because] it was not a floor vote really is incorrect. Democracy occurred with every member of the Assembly majority providing the speaker with his or her views, whether it was in conference or when the speaker polled members.”

Congestion Drip: Is Sheldon Silver the Man to Blame?