Studying Albany, and Giggling Politely
ALBANY,NY April 29 - The people of the visiting party from Ghana, a fledgling West African democracy, spoke perfect English, but walking the marble corridors of power in Albany, they came across a word they had never heard before.
"We were amused by the word 'lobbyist,' " said Moses Asaga, a ranking member of Ghana's Parliament. "This lobbyist can just walk around and they get money," he said, laughing.
It was not the only surprise for the delegation visiting the capital city for what was billed as a firsthand look at American democracy in action. Specifically, they were on a mission to understand how the budget process works in the United States.
But in visiting Albany, they were studying a world where individual lawmakers have a minimal effect on budget issues, deferring instead to three men who argue behind closed doors and then explain to the representatives how to vote. Indeed, several things about the workings of Albany mystified the group.
"We have a definite time when the budget must be passed," said Eugene Agyepong, chairman of the Finance Committee in Ghana's Parliament. With Albany's budget late for the 20th consecutive year, and New York the only state in the nation with such an unblemished record, Mr. Agyepong could be forgiven for finding the situation a bit hard to understand.
"If we do not have a budget, the government shuts down," he said.
New York, with a population of 18 million people, has a budget of more than $100 billion. Ghana, with a population of 20 million people, has a budget of just $1.6 billion.
Mr. Agyepong said that the hardest thing to understand, in some ways, was just where all the money was going, particularly the funds dealing with domestic security. While West Africa in general is not a place where there are functioning governments, much less governments operating in a way the public can scrutinize, the delegation found New York's budget "opaque."
"Here we have to ask a lot of questions," Mr. Agyepong said. "You just really don't know how each allocation is spent. That is quite bleak."
Nestled between Togo and Ivory Coast, Ghana is one of the few bright spots in a region torn by civil war and corrupt despots. A former British colony, the nation operates on a parliamentary system; in 2000, John Kufuor was elected president in elections that observers considered fair.
In Albany, the same triumvirate has been in power for more than a decade: the governor, George E. Pataki; the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver; and the Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno. During that time they have consolidated their power to such a degree that little is done without their express permission.
"We don't have powers concentrated to such a degree at the highest level," Mr. Asaga said. "We find this a little bit strange. We expected more debate, more opinions."
The visit was arranged by the State University of New York and the United States Agency for International Development. The Ghanaians visited both chambers of the Legislature. Outside the Senate, an 1892 oil painting by William Bengough depicted a young Theodore Roosevelt before a group of elegantly dressed men in a swirl of activity conveying the vibrancy of big ideas being discussed.
"They were eating hamburgers and drinking canned soda," Mr. Asaga said of the modern-day lawmakers he saw.
Members of the delegation, unfailingly polite, were no less surprised at the business being conducted.
"They would introduce some baseball team to the speaker," Mr. Asaga said. "Someone introduced his son."
Not sure whether this was time well spent in conducting the business of the state, Mr. Asaga said that back in Ghana such antics would have drawn condemnation.
"They would have said, "What does this have to do with anything?' "
Mr. Agyepong, nodding but sensing a bit of diplomacy might be needed, said, "Everybody has different ways."