[Context] The Albany Handshake, by Christopher Ketcham | Harper's Magazine

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The Albany Handshake


Sheldon Silver is sentenced to twelve years in prison for fraud; Christopher Ketcham visits New York’s dysfunctional state legislature.

Published in the May 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “The Albany Handshake” explores the unrivaled corruption and inefficiency of New York’s state legislature. Subscribe to Harper’s for instant access to our entire 165-year archive.


From a New York Times report, published May 4, 2016, on the sentencing of former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to twelve years in prison for fraud, money laundering, and extortion.

The conviction of Mr. Silver, 72, served as a capstone to a campaign against public corruption by Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, which has led to more than a dozen state lawmakers being convicted or pleading guilty.

Among America’s state legislatures, it has been said (and it is largely true) that New York’s is the least efficient in passing laws, the most profligate in its operations, the least open in rules of participation, the least deliberative, the least democratic. One can look in almost any direction in Albany and find a problem: there are the lobbyists who infest the legislature, whose relationships with lawmakers are largely undisclosed and whose spending has risen, in constant dollars, almost 500 percent since 1990; or the campaign-finance laws, more loophole than legislation, which allow single contributions to party organizations of up to $94,200 (three times the amount permitted to national parties funding members of the U.S. Congress); or the tortured shapes of the gerrymandered districts (one has been described as “Abraham Lincoln Riding a Vacuum Cleaner,” another as “Bug Splattered on Windshield”) that guarantee one-party fiefdoms for incumbents; or the fact that until recently a lawmaker could be drunk at a bar down the block and have his vote recorded (“empty-seat votes,” as they are known, are always recorded as ayes); or that the majority leader can unilaterally suspend action on any bill, at any time; or that in 2007, 89 percent of legislation passed with no debate; or that transcripts of the few debates that do occur can be accessed in nearly all cases only via the Freedom of Information Law; or that the Legislative Ethics Commission, empowered to oversee the conduct of its own membership, has in its twenty-three years of operation brought not a single case against a legislator.

New Yorkers, for their part, cared about the legislative crisis only enough to complain about it: in an August 2009 poll, a full 72 percent disapproved of how the legislature was handling its job and 49 percent felt that every single senator should be removed from office.

Read the full piece here.

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