Book Review: Tales from the Sausage Factory

Tales from the Sausage Factory; Making Laws in New York State
by Daniel L. Feldman and Gerald Benjamin
Excelsior Editions (State University of New York Press), 2010

A unique collaboration between a pol and a prof, the authors deliver what the title –Tales from the Sausage Factory – suggests: an expose into the messy world of law-making by the NYS Legislature. Feldman delivers the experience – detailed descriptions of his attempts to write or influence legislation over nearly 2 decades (1981-1998) – while Professor Benjamin adds the perspective of the detached observer.

This book somewhat reminds me of what happened to Upton Sinclair when he wrote The Jungle in 1905. He aimed for the mind, hoping to convert people to socialism, but instead hit them in the stomach. Feldman and Benjamin aim to show us a process that works, but many readers will come away convinced that things are even worse than they originally thought.

Certainly people will come away disappointed if they hope to learn that representative government is capable of producing laws that do not allow interest groups to prevail at the expense of the common good. To the contrary, we learn that legislative outcomes are a reflection of a continuous war between a thousand interests filtered through a political system that favors the resourced and the disciplined.

Case in point is Feldman’s attempt to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Feldman’s views on the topic were changed by first-hand exposure as chairman of the Assembly Corrections Committee. In that role he realized that the net that was supposed to catch and punish drug pushers was hauling in thousands of low-level users instead. The result was a dramatic rise in New York’s prison population taking money away from education and other needed programs. Yet the push to reform lacked advocates with sufficient clout to change the system for more than two decades. In fact the interest groups like the District Attorney’s Association and the political players including former Governor Pataki found it advantageous to advocate reform while withholding a commitment to actual change. Words sometimes do speak louder than actions.

Tales is largely Dan Feldman’s story. It is unique perhaps in the sense that Feldman came to the Legislature more focused on doing a good job than holding onto his office. That cannot be said of some of his colleagues for whom a long career in the Legislature is the pinnacle of their life’s achievements. As a result Feldman was more engaged and more principled, which also explains why he is no longer there.

As a writer Feldman often tries to pack more than is necessary in a single sentence. In his final chapter he writes: “Sustained passion for change, harnessed and focused, can overcome the ordinary tendency of those with shared beliefs in an issue to leave the work to others, and prevail against more easily mobilized economic interests.” (p. 302). In other words the more people care the more likely they will succeed. However, on the whole Feldman offers a nuanced picture of the process of give and take, of walking the fine lines of the political matrix, and of how individuals affect outcomes.

Professor Benjamin’s role in the project was to provide the historical and institutional perspective, which he does admirably. He helps the reader understand the evolution of the Legislature’s arcane procedures in the context of New York’s demographics and political alignment. His discussion of how the Tom DiNapoli was chosen to replace Alan Hevesi is a gem, reminding us why the Legislature is able so often to get away with doing things in the face of opposition no matter the source.

The book will offer encouragement to those who are or hope to be participants in the political process. Change is possible, but it takes persistence and luck, and it rarely comes quickly. Tales also serves as a reminder that politics is a tricky business. Laws often have unintended consequences and change doesn’t always take place in the way one expects. Case in point is that DAs around the state changed their behavior to modify the impact of the Rockefeller Drug Laws thus lessening the need for reform, which ironically helped make it possible for the formal legal change to take place.

The authors provide detailed references, which is another reason that Tales deserves to be read by public officials, journalists, students, political activists and citizens alike.

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