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State Assembly: Always in session

Albany Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy presides over the Assembly on Wednesday, August 9.

The U.S. 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 Donald Trump from making any unwelcome recess appointments while they are away.

In Albany, taking steps to keep the legislative chambers open is nothing new.

On a day earlier this week, Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy stood on the podium in the vast Assembly chamber. She banged the gavel, and began what sounded like an ordinary day in the state Legislature.

“Visitors are invited to join members in the Pledge of Allegiance,” Fahy said, then recited the pledge.

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

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

When Fahy, who is from Albany, was elected to the Assembly in 2012, she learned that as the member who lives closest to the state Capitol, one of her duties would be to gavel in a “session” every three days or so and recite a 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?’ ” said Fahy, who admitted “it can be little lonely” late on a Sunday night when the Capitol is empty.

But, she said, just like in the U.S. Senate this summer, there’s an important reason for the ritual — maintaining 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 added 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-Gov. 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 only 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 Assembly members from the surrounding suburbs are happy to fill in.

And while she doesn’t get any extra pay for her efforts, she said it’s not about the money.

“It’s an honor,” Fahy said.

She banged the gavel again and said, “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 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.