A heated debate overtook the Assembly on Monday, but lawmakers weren’t arguing over a controversial piece of legislation. Rather, they were debating debate itself – or more specifically, changes to how debate would take place in the chamber. One after another, Republican members lambasted a rules change that would limit debate on any bill to four hours, with each lawmaker given only one 15-minute period to speak. But the resolution passed by a margin of 101 to 43, underscoring the GOP’s continually diminishing influence in the state Legislature.
Debate on the issue lasted over two hours as Republicans laid out their grievances over the limits on debate and accused Democrats of attempting to stifle debate – and in turn the voices of New Yorkers – in a way comparable to GOP attempts in southern states to limit voting rights. “Can you imagine the outrage on the pages of The New York Times or on Twitter if this was done in the state of Georgia, or the state of Texas, or the state of Florida?” said Republican Assembly Member Michael Lawler. “Instead of worrying about what they’re doing in Georgia, worry about what we’re doing here. Vote no!” Lawler angrily shouted the last part.
Assembly Minority Leader Pro-Tempore Andy Goodell used complicated budget bills as a prime example of why his conference opposed the rules change, and urged members from across the aisle to reject them as well. Each budget bill has numerous parts, generally no less than 20 for even the shortest, which Goodell argued meant that lawmakers would have only seconds to discuss every individual section. “What are we afraid of?” Goodell added. “Surely all of us have time to listen to and respect the comments of our colleagues.”
The Assembly traditionally has had no limit on the time allowed for debate, a rule that would lead to holdups in the chamber’s work even compared to the state Senate, where chamber rules limit debate to four hours total. The Assembly is well known for working until the wee hours of the morning, well after the Senate had concluded its work, delaying the passage of important legislation like the budget. “This is not about limiting public anything,” said Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes. “This is about doing the work of the people in the people's house.”
The previous debate rules didn’t allow for a traditional filibuster like one would see at the federal level as minority members cannot outright prevent a vote through talking. But the lack of a time limit allowed Republicans to delay a vote for hours, a practice many Republicans indicated should remain in place. “This is equivalent to doing away with the filibuster, where all that argument is going on at the national level,” Republican Assembly Member Mary Beth Walsh said. “This isn’t democracy.”
The rules change represents the latest blow to the already dwindling influence for Republicans not only in the Assembly, but in the state Legislature as a whole. It comes just as the Independent Redistricting Commission officially hands over the process of drawing new legislative lines to Democrats following a deadline today. It’s the first time in decades that Republicans have not controlled at least one chamber during redistricting, a death knell for a party that has managed to keep even a small grasp on power by drawing favorable districts.
Lawmakers in the minority have continued their attempts to remain relevant – they have held numerous press conferences in the first few weeks of the year to denounce Democratic policy, pandemic-related mandates and introduce their own legislation. But the events serve as little more than higher-profile versions of Republicans’ pleas for relevance and cries for democracy during the debate over the rules changes. “God bless America,” an impassioned Republican Assembly Member Chris Tague said in chambers Monday in a particularly patriotic moment. “And vote no on this resolution!”