This Secret Senate Committee Decides Whether Bills Live or Die

An ornate Senate staircase in New York's Capitol building in Albany
In a series of closed-door meetings, the Working Rules group will make many of the year's remaining decisions. | NYS Senate Media Services

You haven’t heard of it, and your state senator might not have either. The Working Rules group helps determine the fate of hundreds of bills at the end of each legislative session.

Sam Mellins, Chris Bragg and Akash Mehta   ·   May 30, 2024

In the final two weeks of the legislative session, the New York State Senate will likely pass hundreds of bills — and let hundreds of others die without getting a vote.

Who decides the bills’ fate? On paper, it’s the Senate Rules Committee, formally one of the most powerful groups in New York’s legislature. Once the Senate’s other committees stop meeting a few weeks before the end of the session, the Rules Committee becomes the only way to get a bill to the Senate floor for a vote. But anyone who has seen the committee meet knows it’s not where decisions are really made.

Meetings are almost never more than 10 minutes long, and they can be as short as 13 seconds. Deputy Senate Majority Leader Michael Gianaris reads a rapid-fire list of bills, declares them approved, and adjourns the meeting. Other senators rarely speak. There’s seldom anything resembling debate or discussion.

That’s saved for when a select group of Democratic senators can meet out of public view.

Until the Senate adjourns for the year on June 6, many of the year’s remaining decisions will fall to the so-called Working Rules group, a circle of senators chosen by Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. In a series of closed-door meetings, the group reviews pending bills and tells the majority leader which ones they recommend go to the Senate floor.

It’s almost entirely unknown to the public.

“Its existence is never acknowledged,” said a person with direct knowledge of Senate Democrats’ operations.

Secrecy is a given in Albany. Lawmakers and good government groups have complained for decades that leadership controls the legislative process, sidelining rank-and-file members and the public. The governor, Assembly speaker, and Senate majority leader hash out the state budget behind closed doors. Lawmakers are given just hours to read thousand-page bills before they vote on them.

In those cases, at least it’s clear who’s calling the shots. But even some state senators said they didn’t know Working Rules existed. Others said they had heard of it, but they had no idea who its members were. New York Focus obtained documents that reveal at least 12 members of last year’s group — plus all of the bills they considered.

Most Senate committees stopped meeting last week. If a bill did not pass an official committee by that deadline, “the only way to get a bill to the floor is through the Working Rules committee,” said Democratic Senator Rachel May, who is not a member of the group. “The general method is to ask a chair — of the committee that the bill is in — to discharge it to Working Rules.”

After Working Rules, the official rules committee then needs to pass a bill before it goes to the Senate floor.

“It’s not some cryptic committee.”

—former state senator Alessandra Biaggi

New York Focus obtained a list of the more than 600 bills the Working Rules group considered last year, compiled by a Senate source. The list is based on meeting agendas, labeled “personal and confidential.” It does not show how the committee voted on each bill, but about half were eventually approved by the full Senate, including bills to promote climate-friendly upgrades to affordable housing and protect access to gender-affirming medical care for minors.

The other half never made it to the Senate floor. The failed bills included high-profile legislation sponsored by a majority of senators to make it easier for older New Yorkers to get parole and to create a public banking system. (Those two bills didn’t pass the Assembly, either; one possibility is that members decided not to waste time on measures that wouldn’t make it through the lower chamber.)

Michael Murphy, a spokesperson for the Senate Democrats, told New York Focus in a statement that the process “decentralizes the end-of-session review process as the normal committee process closes down.”

“A group of diverse ever-changing senators review with staff experts complex bills that never made it through the committee process,” Murphy said. “These bills are then brought to the entire conference for discussion and review before a final decision is made on floor activity. Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins has always relied on the expertise and experience of her members and this system is an extension of that belief.”

“Its existence is never acknowledged.”

But bills that fail to pass Working Rules often aren’t discussed in the full Senate Democratic conference, meaning that rejection from Working Rules is the end of the road. In response to follow-up questions, Murphy said that any Democratic senator can “request” a full Democratic conference discussion on any bill, including those that fail in Working Rules, “at any time.”

Every bill that does pass Working Rules, Murphy said, is “brought to the conference for discussion” before going to the Senate floor.

Several individuals who spoke to New York Focus said that Working Rules plays a useful role in giving bills an additional round of expert vetting.

“There are multiple times throughout the year where groups are formed to make decisions, and this is just one of them. It’s not some cryptic committee,” said former state Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who served from 2019 to 2022.

But the secrecy dates back decades.

Former Assemblymember Richard Gottfried told New York Focus that he first learned of Working Rules in the 1990s, after decades in the legislature, from a lobbyist who told him that the committee was blocking one of his bills.

“The lobbyist said, ‘Oh, it’s held up in ‘super rules,’” Gottfried recalled. “And I said, ‘What is that?’”

A bin of bills sits next to the Senate Journal Clerk on July 22, 2020.
A bin of bills sits next to the Senate Journal Clerk on July 22, 2020. | NYS Senate Media Services

The coveted spots on the Working Rules group give senators a voice at a key stage in the legislative process. Joining the group may also give them a better shot at passing their own bills. When last year’s known Working Rules members considered their own bills, over 70 percent made it to the floor and passed the Senate. When the group considered bills sponsored by other senators, just 40 percent did.

Working Rules members last year were long-serving legislators, like Gianaris, or members from more moderate districts, such as Senator James Skoufis, of the Hudson Valley, who was narrowly reelected in 2022. The group at times considers whether a particular bill could harm Democrats’ reelection chances in swing districts, three sources with knowledge of the group said. (Murphy said he’d “never heard” of such political considerations being brought up in Working Rules; he declined to say whether he personally sat in on the meetings.)

Membership varies from year to year, but some senators are consistently part of the group, sources told New York Focus. Documents reviewed by New York Focus indicate that last year’s members included Senators Jamaal Bailey, Neil Breslin, Andrew Gounardes, Brad Hoylman-Sigal, Tim Kennedy, Liz Krueger, Shelley Mayer, Roxanne Persaud, Jose Serrano, and Kevin Thomas, in addition to Gianaris and Skoufis. In a New Republic story last year, Senator Toby Stavisky was mentioned as a member of an “unofficial working committee” along with other members of the Working Rules group.

Working Rules’ internal procedures are informal, according to several sources. Staffers present hundreds of bills to the members in lengthy packets, which outline their estimated fiscal impact and include memorandums from interest groups such as New York University, the Archdiocese of New York, and the insurance industry lobby Health Plan Association.

“I’d be silly to answer that question.”

—Senator Joe Addabbo

The senators then seek to reach consensus on whether a bill should go to the floor. A single voice adamantly for or against a bill can sometimes carry the day. If there’s disagreement, the final decision may go to Stewart-Cousins.

Biaggi, the former state senator, noted that Senate Democrats also form working groups to set priorities on specific policy areas like health care and education. She said she was not a member herself, but that Working Rules is “a very normal process point.”

Bills that pass through Working Rules often sail to the floor. The path is far more difficult for bills that don’t, though individual senators can still push for their priorities during meetings of the full Democratic conference.

Empty chairs in the New York state Capitol building in Albany, senate lobby
Many state senators don't know who gets a seat in the powerful Working Rules Group. | NYS Senate Media Services

The Working Rules Group has a low profile by design. Unlike the numerous official committees of the Senate, which are required to open their meetings to the public and livestream them, Working Rules doesn’t have to announce or broadcast its meetings. In fact, it has no public presence at all.

During the legislative session, there are regular conference meetings of all 41 Senate Democrats where they discuss — also behind closed doors — which bills to bring to the Senate floor. Working Rules isn’t generally mentioned.

“I would guess that a big percentage of the membership doesn’t even know it exists,” said the individual with direct knowledge of Senate Democrats’ operations.

Asked about Working Rules, Senator Nathalia Fernandez, a freshman, said she hadn’t heard of it. Another recently elected Democratic senator was also unfamiliar with the term. A number of more senior Senate Democrats, who are not Working Rules members, were familiar with it.

Some members of Working Rules avoid mentioning it to other senators, so that they aren’t pestered about why particular bills aren’t advancing. May, who is not a member of Working Rules, said that if members’ identities were known, they would be “hounded by all of us.”

New York Focus approached every known member of Working Rules for comment. Some walked away. None agreed to discuss it on the record, and most declined to speak at all, referring questions to Murphy, the spokesperson for the Senate Democrats.

“It’s not my position to comment on those types of organizational matters,” said Hoylman-Sigal, who was listed as part of the group last year but declined to confirm or deny his role. “It’s a Senate leadership issue that is led by the leader and I certainly can’t speak for anyone. In other words, above my pay grade.”

“Working Rules is not something that I’m at liberty to discuss,” Skoufis said.

A number of non-members were reluctant to discuss aspects of Working Rules, too.

Asked if he knew which colleagues sat on Working Rules or whether his bills had passed through the body, veteran Democratic Senator Joe Addabbo responded, “I’m not at liberty. I’d be silly to answer that question.”

Addabbo did say that Working Rules is an “infrastructure” for determining what bills can realistically pass during the session’s final two weeks.

“Does it have support? Does it have the votes? Is it moving in the Assembly?” Addabbo said, describing the types of questions considered by the group. “I don’t mind the structure. To me, it makes us more efficient.”

“It’s obviously a way for majority leaders to have a level of control.”

—Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt

Working Rules is all the more influential because the legislature’s official committees have little formal power. If Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins opposes a bill, she can block a committee chair from putting it on the committee’s agenda.

Last year, a bill to promote affordable housing renovations languished without a committee vote from February to June. Then it got on the Working Rules agenda, and squeaked through in the session’s final days.

Working Rules “wouldn’t matter as much if there was real committee action, where you could build momentum on bills,” said Eric Lane, a Hofstra University professor who worked for state Senate Democrats in the 1980s. “Albany is, in my mind, the worst in the country with respect to legislatively empowering committees or members.”

Proponents of Working Rules argue that it’s necessary to weed out flawed bills, and that if the group didn’t exist, the governor would be forced to issue more vetoes. And holding the meetings behind closed doors, rather than in public, allows members to speak more freely.

Gottfried, the former assemblymember, argued that despite its secrecy, the Working Rules group is more democratic than the Assembly’s method for determining which bills get a vote, which is simply at the discretion of Speaker Carl Heastie and his staff.

“You could argue that it may be a more member-oriented approach,” he said.

New York’s legislature isn’t unique in having a body that can stop bills from reaching the floor based on decisions that happen outside public view. In California, for example, the chairs of each legislative chamber’s powerful appropriations committee have two opportunities per year to place bills in the so-called “suspense file,” which stops their progress without explanation.

As in New York, proponents defend the process as essential for screening large numbers of bills and making sure the legislature doesn’t spend beyond the state’s means. But experts say that such maneuvers — in either state — can stall important legislation out of the public eye.

“Legislatures necessarily have to narrow the bills they’re likely to consider,” said Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina and coauthor of a textbook on legislative processes. “If it’s happening behind closed doors, it makes holding people accountable very difficult.”

Unlike New York’s, California’s method allows the public to know who is responsible for bills that don’t pass. In January, the Los Angeles Times cited Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Anthony Portantino’s use of the suspense file as a reason they didn’t endorse his recent unsuccessful bid for Congress. “Portantino quietly killed many good pieces of legislation,” the Times wrote, “by stalling them indefinitely with no explanation.”

Working Rules, by contrast, is able to operate without public accountability. According to Republican Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, the Republicans who controlled the Senate until 2019 used the group in much the same way that the ruling Democrats do today.

“I saw it as a practical or functional aspect more than anything,” Ortt said. “You’re talking about such a volume of legislation that you need some way to vet that down.”

It was also a useful tool for maintaining leadership’s power. “It’s obviously a way for majority leaders to have a level of control as well,” he said. “Let’s not pretend that’s not what it is.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
Chris Bragg is the Albany bureau chief at New York Focus. He has done investigative reporting on New York government and politics since 2009, most recently at The Buffalo News and Albany Times Union.
Akash Mehta co-founded New York Focus and is the organization’s editor-in-chief. He grew up in New York City, and in another life he was a member of his local community board and a policy fellow at the City Council.
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