ALBANY – Hopefully, they won’t become New York State’s version of Julius Caesar and Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus.
Come Jan. 1, Sens. Dean G. Skelos, a Republican from Long Island, and Jeffrey D. Klein, a Democrat from the Bronx, will embark on dual leadership to run the State Senate, the first time anything like that has been attempted in New York.
The two senators would do well to heed the lessons from Caesar and Bibulus during their time as Roman consuls – or co-leaders – in 59 B.C.
Let’s just say it didn’t go well, at least for Bibulus. In one of the nastier disputes with Caesar and his backers, Bibulus found himself beaten up and covered in feces by an angry crowd. Bibulus didn’t even complete his one-year term as consul, and he later went on to oppose Caesar in a civil war.
Albany may not be ancient Rome, and Skelos and Klein, unlike Caesar and Bibulus, insist they are allies. But in the days since Skelos and Klein hatched their deal, many experts across the country have been scratching their heads about the plan to keep Republicans in partial control of the Senate by sharing power with five breakaway Democrats.
Their agreement stipulates that Skelos will hold the title of temporary president of the Senate for 14 days and then give the title over to Klein for 14 days. And then back and forth it will go all next year.
“I don’t know how New York State got to the place it is,” said Ronald J. Mellor, distinguished professor of history and a Roman history scholar at the University of California at Los Angeles, when told about the power-sharing deal Skelos and Klein devised.
New York got to this place because Republicans did not win enough seats last month to keep control of the Senate, so they needed the help of the Klein-led Independent Democratic Conference to prevent Democrats from seizing control.
Experts say coalition governments – in other states, over the decades, or places such as Israel and Italy – have occurred. But they can often be forced, when there is a tie between Democrats and Republicans in a legislative body. That is not the case here. And dual leaderships are not unique.
But a coalition government and dual leadership at the same time?
“That’s absolutely unique,” said Timothy B. Storey, an election law analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.
There have been dual leaderships to run an entire government or branch of government, according to scholars of international and United States legislative bodies. Many have come in response to authoritarian rulers, such as Rome’s approach to dual leadership that began in about 500 B.C.
Most, though, don’t last nearly as long as the Rome experiment, and most are merely transitional deals in which one individual, despite the theory of dual leadership, has far more power.
And the notion of switching power every 14 days?
“I’ve never heard of it,” said Ruth Wedgwood, an expert in international law and diplomacy at the Washington-based School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
There are some current examples of dual leadership in the world, but they are far-flung and don’t come close to the idea of flipping leadership titles every two weeks.
Kim Lane Scheppele, director of the law and public affairs program at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, cited some examples in which opposing political parties are able to check the power of those controlling a government through rotating leadership positions. But most involve areas of domestic spying, she said.
In the German Parliament, she noted, the G10 Committee reviews domestic surveillance matters; the rules mandate that the chairmanship rotate every six months.
In the Hungarian Parliament, membership of the National Security Committee, which reviews domestic security matters, must rotate every 10 months.
Mellor, the UCLA Roman history expert, said the Romans moved to dual-leadership titles – consuls – when an emperor was expelled in 509 B.C. The consuls, who mainly served as chairmen of the Senate, could veto each other’s decisions.
“It was a way of ensuring there not be a tyrannical government. Of course, this made for chaos sometimes,” he noted.
Often, the two consuls would end up being in charge of different functions: one the army in the field, the other the ministerial duties in Rome.
During times of crisis, the two could appoint a dictator who could hold complete power – but generally for no more than six months – over matters such as a military operation.
With some notable exceptions, the dual leadership in Roman times was effective for long periods of time, but chiefly because of the consul structure, which featured one-year term limits, Mellor said.
Spokesmen for Skelos and Klein declined to say who thought of the idea of switching the title of “temporary president” every two weeks. The State Constitution permits only one individual to hold the title.
The emergence in the State Senate of three distinct caucuses with their own levels of power is rare in state governments, said Storey, the election law analyst in Denver.
As for dual leadership, there have been examples, such as Oregon currently, where two people change leadership titles for different periods of time. At different points over the last 30 years, Indiana, Nevada and Washington State had situations where leadership titles changed daily. In New Jersey in 2001, they changed every two weeks.
“It works if the people want to make it work,” Storey said. “There have been examples where it can be a complete train wreck and other cases where they’ve had the most successful legislative sessions anyone can remember.”
The Encyclopedia of Government and Politics notes that dual leaderships have been used everywhere from France in the early 1600s to Austria and Germany in the early 1800s, as well as Morocco, Tanzania and Libya.
Dual leaders were often created to serve as transitional governments, but at some points in history, a quarter of the world had some form of dual-leadership governments – though with vastly different structures and through sharing deals that often ended up having one of the co-leaders with far more power than the other.
Most of those who have made careers studying how governments and legislative bodies operate were a mix of amusement or perplexity by the notion of Skelos and Klein changing job titles every two weeks.
“Wow. My God,” said James E. Campbell, a University at Buffalo political scientist. “Why not every two hours?”