lawmakers act as though laws don't apply to them
by alan chartock
the more we watch these powerful folks in politics, the clearer it is that many of their actions can be explained by "rationalization," the term we all learned back in our basic psychology 101 course. for example, when charlie rangel is accused of not paying his taxes after having written much of the tax code, or eliot spitzer consorts with prostitutes after he wrote and enforced many of the laws against "johns," we ask ourselves how they could be so stupid. or when former republican senate majority leader joe bruno skirts the ethical line by selling a nearly worthless nag as a way of having a business associate funnel money to him, we shake our heads and wonder what he could have been thinking.
the answer, i am convinced, is that they truly do not believe they are doing anything wrong. any lie detector read-out would indicate they were telling the truth when they insisted they had done nothing wrong. some have described this self-deception phenomenon as a sense of entitlement. some suggest that when you get very powerful, you think you are owed something by the rest of society. i've seen this kind of arrogance in politicians up close and personal, time and again.
speaker sheldon silver says that his house passed a very strong ethics bill that, for some reason, was vetoed by governor paterson. the bill was vetoed because it had enough loopholes to drive a semi-truck through. the people deserve to know where every penny a legislator raises comes from. shelly silver and his colleagues don't like that. if that had been part of the ethics bill, the governor would have signed it.
the very powerful seem to act as though the laws are for other people. i know many of these people fairly well and, more often than not, i really like them. they are real characters. sometimes they spring at you like a damon runyon character from guys and dolls. when you speak to them, they are just like us. they have foibles. they are human. they have a sense of humor. they have good and not so good sides to them. in some cases, they have flirted with legal prohibitions and enter into a state of denial. in others, they fool themselves on policy matters.
these days, it is fashionable in some reform quarters to speak of shelly silver, the top guy in the new york state assembly, as if he is the devil himself. his former chief of staff, pat lynch, is now one of the most important lobbyists in albany. the word on the street is that if you want something from shelly, you hire pat lynch, his former, most trusted aid. in albany, true or not, perception is everything. perception gets lobbyists hired.
when i recently asked shelly whether lobbyists in albany are too powerful, he answered that he can show us good laws like "leandra's law," which was pushed by citizen lobbyists and makes it a felony to drive intoxicated with children in your car. hey, come on now, shelly, there is a huge difference between the big boys and girls who push the laws and funnel money to the legislators for their election campaigns and the few good government types who occasionally get a win to make the legislature smell good.
when i asked the speaker about the law that the governor and the senate are pushing that would "empower" suny, he seemed dead set against it. he says, and he is again right, that every time you raise tuition, a young person will be denied the american dream. under the "empowerment act," suny schools and presumably city university schools will be given the power to raise tuition for their schools and will, presumably, be allowed to keep the increase to run their schools.
the problem is that we are in really tough times. the state university has been slashed terribly. to keep the university viable, it makes sense to allow the schools to raise tuition. otherwise the great suny and cuny systems are truly doomed. the speaker has the power to make sure that those with the least are given tuition assistance (tap) funds.
all this proves that both politically and substantively, our public officials are human and can get it wrong.
alan s. chartock is president and ceo of wamc/northeast public radio and an executive publisher at the legislative gazette.