ITHACA, N.Y. – This week from Albany and Washington…

Both legislatures have gaveled back into session. New York state lawmakers are still focusing in on what major legislative areas they’re looking to tackle, especially considering Democrats now have unified government in Albany. However, the fanfare in Washington didn’t last nearly as long, with bickering and gridlock continuing over the government shutdown and President Trump’s demands for border security.

Rep. Tom Reed (23rd Congressional District)

The 116th Congress formally opened Jan. 3, beginning Rep. Tom Reed’s (R – N.Y.) fifth full term in the House. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D – Calif.) regained control of the chamber without the support of Reed, who had at one point indicated he’d cast a vote for the San Francisco Democrat. He withdrew his support for Pelosi because she didn’t express the need for or interest in his vote.

Reed’s initial offer was to create a block of moderate Republicans who would vote for Pelosi if she agreed to a set of reforms to House rules as outlined in the Problem Solvers Caucus “Break the Gridlock” package. The caucus is made up of an equal number of moderate Republicans and Democrats and is co-chaired by Reed and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D – N.J.). Democrats ended up drafting rules with several of the package’s provisions, like one that would require a full 72 hours between the time a bill is posted and is brought forward for a vote. The package doesn’t, however, include provisions sought by the Problem Solvers Caucus to fast-track legislation that has bipartisan support.

Despite not supporting Pelosi in the speaker vote, Reed made national headlines for crossing the aisle on all three sections of the rules package. He was one of only three Republicans to defect from the party and vote for the first and third sections, the latter of which allows the House general counsel to get involved in a federal lawsuit attacking provisions of the Affordable Care Act, including protections for those with pre-existing conditions. Many House Republicans dismissed the vote as a political game and maintained that protection of pre-existing conditions continues to have bipartisan support.

Congress also continues to grapple with the government shutdown over President Trump and Republicans’ demands for a border wall or “barrier.” On Jan. 3 Reed called partisan bickering over the wall “asinine,” and blamed extremism from both parties for the shutdown in an interview with HillTV. Last week, he told reporters on a conference call that he agrees with the president’s assessment that the situation on the border is a crisis.

“I do see a crisis at the border,” Reed said. “I do see threats that we should all be aware of. We have two children dying at the border, you have a law enforcement officer die in the line of duty. You have seven known terrorists that have come through the border just since October of last year and that is very frustrating.”

Reed stopped short of agreeing with President Trump’s threats to build the wall under a state of emergency declaration.

On Wednesday, Reed had a rather confusing exchange with CNN’s Brienna Keiler over whether he’d join some of his colleagues and forgo his paycheck during the shutdown. Reed said, “I just don’t feel that’s appropriate for me to use a PR stunt or something along those lines on that front to do that.” In the same interview he added, “we’ve given to charity historically when we’ve had shutdown situations. And we’re going to do that continuing going forward.”

It’s against the 27th amendment of the U.S. Constitution for a member of Congress to actually refuse their paycheck. Members typically return it to the Treasury Department or donate it to a charity.

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (125th Assembly District)

The New York Assembly began its session last week. Legislators gathered Wednesday and swore in Speaker Carl Heastie (D – N.Y 83rd) and new Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D – N.Y. 141st), who is the first African American woman to win the role.

The legislature is set to vote on a large package of voting and electoral reforms Monday. Lifton serves on the committee which authored the bill and is a cosponsor of the package. Provisions in the bill include combining state and federal primaries, making election day a state holiday in New York, allowing early voting, and closing the LLC loophole on campaign donations. The electoral reforms package is one of many pieces of legislation that had been held up by the previously Republican-controlled Senate.

Members of the legislature are anxiously awaiting their paychecks. It’s the first time they’ve received a raise in almost 20 years. Last year the legislature set up a commission to assess and make recommendations on how lawmakers are paid. In December, the commission recommended raising the base salary of state senators and members of the Assembly from $79,500 to $110,000. Lifton agrees with the raise, which she deems an appropriate match to the increasing cost of living.

“We take the voices of the people in our districts to Albany and we fight for the things they care about. So when we’re weakened as a legislature – and part of weakening people is not paying them, when you don’t pay people you’re inherently weakening them – it weakens our voices it weakens our power,” Lifton told The Ithaca Voice in an interview Friday.

The pay commission is still in an ongoing legal battle over another one of its recommendations, which would cap the amount of income a lawmaker can earn from outside employment. Lifton agrees that outside income should be capped or banned, but said, since the commission wasn’t originally charged with instituting policy on outside income, combining the the move with a pay raise equates to bribery.

“That’s bribery,” Lifton said. “If someone else did that – came up and said I’ll give you $5,000 if you pass this bill – you could be arrested for that. People are arrested for that. They go to jail. It’s not okay actually for a pay commission to do that.”

State Senator Tom O’Mara (58th N.Y. Senate District)

The New York State Senate also began its session last week, and for the first time in almost four years Sen. O’Mara (R – N.Y. 58th) and the Republicans will sit in the minority. With the new session comes new committee assignments for O’Mara. He’ll now serve as the highest ranking minority representative on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees judicial appointments for statewide posts. He’ll also continue to serve on the agriculture, transportation and codes committees, among others.

In a press release last week, O’Mara outlined his priorities moving into what will be a session with major left-leaning legislative pushes by the governor and newly Democratic unified government.

“‘No new taxes’ will be a priority for Senate Republicans in 2019,” O’Mara said. “So will state spending control, mandate relief, and comprehensive regulatory reform.”

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D – N.Y.) has been closely following proposed changes to the Department of Education’s guidance under Title IX law. The Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos is suggesting a rollback of expansive sexual assault, harassment and discrimination reporting requirements on higher education institutions that were put into place under the Obama administration.

Proponents of the changes argue that they more fairly respect the rights of accused parties before they’re proven guilty, while Gillibrand and other opponents of the changes worry they may leave victims without a strong system to respond to their claims.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D – N.Y.), alongside House Speaker Pelosi, has been at the forefront of negotiations over the shutdown and border security. Last week, he whipped Democratic senators to vote against opening debate on any legislative initiatives until Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R – Ky.) brings forward legislation that would fund the government.

Last Tuesday, Schumer stood alongside Pelosi in a Democratic response to the oval office address in which President Trump declared border security a national security and humanitarian crisis and reiterated his calls for a border wall. 

“American democracy doesn’t work that way,” Schumer said. “We don’t govern by temper tantrum. No president should pound the table and demand he gets his way or else the government shuts down, hurting millions of Americans who are treated as leverage.”

Vaughn Golden

Vaughn Golden is a freelance radio and print reporter covering politics around the southern tier and central New York. He authors the weekly "Capitol Watch" watchdog report on Ithaca's representatives...