Tales from the Sausage Factory: Making Laws in New York State

November 11, 2010

This is an intriguing idea for what will doubtless seem a rather specialist book - unless you are an American or interested in politics, the law and constitutional matters. Its title is adapted from the words often attributed to Otto von Bismarck: "Laws are like sausages - better not to see them made."

In the UK, we are likely to take the view that seeing laws made is a privilege, since all we have had for years is the full-frontal vote, or the media's reports of behind-the-scenes action. Our tame televising of the "legislature at work" is hardly a substitute for full analysis of the mechanisms and a trawl through the behind-the-scenes undergrowth.

At heart, it is behind the scenes we'd prefer to see exposed, even though one suspects that what we would find in politics and law might be something a little more unpleasant than mechanically recovered meat.

So what do we have here? Several hundred pages, commencing with a prologue, followed by 11 chapters on topics such as drugs, guns, paedophiles and changing American law - with a sources list that could prove very useful for further research. It is a story, or series of stories, from the New York State Legislature in the 1980s and 1990s, dramatising the political-legal imperatives of making legislation, and highlighting the important features of what appears to have been a time of enormous change.

It is not exactly a memoir, although at times it delves deeply into the personal, and so many people are thanked for their contributions that it seems to jeopardise its warts-and-all intentions. It is more a description of, and reflection on, the workings of politics and legislatures and how they change and effect change in one state, and the values that do battle when law must change.

It is important for Europeans to remember that it may not be so strange after all to publish a book with a focus as limited as this. We should remember how small most of our countries are when we mentally drop them into the geographical expanse of most US states and find we have plenty of space around our beloved borders to spare. The same things have to happen - legislation, government, services, etc - but, by comparison with the same business in the US, it is on a much smaller scale.

Incidentally, the book feeds the British belief that Americans have a fixation with perfect teeth when it is mentioned early on that one of the authors was advised to have his teeth fixed prior to embarking upon a political career. In its encapsulation of the business of law-making, this is just one occasion where the book serves as a reminder that the UK and US are two countries divided by the same language - a quip variously attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill (whoever it was, I still wish I had said it). It isn't just language, though, is it?

In part, Tales from the Sausage Factory tries to be something of a textbook in its attempt to show what happens when legislators (and one supposes there are some common features among this breed) meet and do what they do. The process of legislation is a mirror of the political system and the socio-legal landscape of a country. Knowing the names and background covered would obviously aid the reader, but explanations are given and the authors try to explain the scenarios of legislative change in such a way as to make the context of the book clear. This is a borehole from the top of a slice of American pie.

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, 392pp, £17.75. ISBN 9781438434018. Published 1 September 2010

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