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The NYS Assembly Is Always In Session

Albany Assemblywoman Patricia Fahey presides over the Assembly on Wednesday, August 9
Karen DeWitt
Albany Assemblywoman Patricia Fahey presides over the Assembly on Wednesday, August 9

The United States Senate plans to use procedural maneuvers to technically stay in session even when Senators eventually go home for the Labor Day recess. Their intent is to prevent President Trump from making any unwelcome recess appointments while they are away. In Albany, NY taking steps to keep the legislative chambers open is nothing new.

Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy stands on the podium in the vast Assembly chamber. She bangs the gavel, and begins what sounds like an ordinary day in the state legislature.

“Visitors are invited to join members in the pledge of allegiance,” Fahy says, then recites the pledge.

But there’s one big difference - all 150 seats in the chamber are completely empty.

“I didn’t know this is what they meant when I heard I had the Capitol seat,” said Fahy, with a laugh “But this is what they mean by the Capitol seat.”

When Fahy, from Albany , was elected to the Assembly in 2012, she learned that part of her duties, as the member living closest to the state Capitol, would be to gavel in a “session”, every three days or so, and recite a one-minute long ritual, to, essentially, no one. There is one legal witness. An Assembly clerk is called in to make a note of the proceeding.

“I thought ‘you’re kidding right’?” sad Fahy who admits “it can be little lonely” late on a Sunday night when the Capitol is empty.

But she says, just like in the U.S. Senate this summer, there’s an important reason for the ritual, to maintain the Assembly’s autonomy. 

“If we were not to gavel in every third day, only the governor can call us back into town,” said Fahy, who said the rules are clearly spelled out in the state’s constitution. “So we never adjourn.”

The practice of holding a continual session in the Assembly, as well as in the State Senate, began in 1978, under then-Governor Hugh Carey. Carey used the legislature’s annual recess to appoint a prisons commissioner that he knew Senators would reject. Lawmakers have never let a governor have that chance again.

On a summer weekday Fahy’s task is not much of a burden. Her legislative office is across the street and she lives a couple of miles away. But she’s had some challenges. Snowstorms, for instance.

“I did have a car accident with the very first snowstorm in late December, driving down on a Saturday morning,” she said. “I skidded in the snow. That was a very costly gavel." 

After that, she bought snow tires.

Fahy does get a break from the duty, for instance, when she goes on vacation. Other local Assemblymembers from the surrounding suburbs are happy to fill in. And while she doesn’t get any extra pay for her efforts, she says it’s not about the money.

“As inconvenient as it can be sometimes, I do remind myself it is something that's very serious and it’s an honor,” Fahy said.

She bangs the gavel again, saying “this house now stands adjourned." 

She’ll do it all over again in three days. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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