For the past 20 years, on holidays, weekends and other days when legislators aren’t around, New York state Assemblyman John J. McEneny has walked into the silent state legislative chamber, stood on a rostrum before 150 unoccupied seats, struck a gavel and announced to the empty room, “The Assembly of the People of the State of New York is now in session.” Then he’d turn around and leave.
There’s actually good reason for the 90-second ritual. According to the state constitution, if the Assembly is dark for four consecutive days, lawmakers can’t reconvene until the next calendar year. By calling the house to order every third day -- even when no one is actually home -- McEneny and his counterpart in the Senate maintain a never-ending session. Gaveling in also helps move bills along, since state law requires that newly introduced legislation must sit for three days before it can be acted on.
Convening a session every third day also prevents the governor from making recess appointments, as Gov. Hugh Carey did in 1978. Knowing the Republican-led Senate would oppose his liberal pick for corrections commissioner, Carey, a Democrat, waited until everyone was gone and appointed his guy. According to McEneny, that’s when the Assembly decided to start gaveling in every day. “I know why I am doing it,” McEneny says, even though he acknowledges it might seem odd to someone unfamiliar with Empire State constitutional arcana. “I preserve the independence of the house.”
It’s a gig that’s best for somebody local. (Statehouse lore holds that an Assembly member once flew to Albany just to gavel in the empty session, but no one can say for sure.) McEneny, who represents Albany, says he doesn’t mind working the unpaid detail into his schedule. Since taking office in 1993, he estimates he’s devoted nearly 3,000 minutes to gaveling before no one. Other area legislators fill in on the few occasions when McEneny is unavailable.
Now, though, McEneny is retiring. As of early December, there was no word on who will replace him in the longstanding if quirky tradition. Other Albany-area legislators are retiring as well, so a newcomer is likely to take the job one way or the other. McEneny says he realizes it might not be everyone’s idea of fun. “But I never saw it as a chore,” he says. “It was one and a half minutes of glory.”