Why Your Senator Should Read the Damn Thing Before He or She Votes On It

By , June 24, 2013 12:37 pm

I’m of so many minds on immigration that I wouldn’t know where to start if I had to explain my position to you. I am clear on one thing however: As with the vote on Obamacare, no lasting good and lots of trouble will come from rushing the current incarnation of immigration reform through the halls and chambers on Capitol Hill. In case you’ve not read the latest, here’s quick update. Though the Corker-Hoeven amendment to the so-called Gang of Eight bill only amounts to about 112 pages, those “pages” are interspersed throughout the existing 1,000 page plus bill, making it an essentially new, 1,200 page bill. The amendment was added to the bill late Friday.

As I said, I’ve always opposed rushing these monstrosities–speaking of size rather than content–through the legislative process. They need to be read and understood first or bad things will almost certainly happen later. My feelings about this issue have increased 10 fold as I read–make that listened to–Robert Caro’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, a page-turner about the man behind New York state’s parks and parkways system. (For the uninitiated, New York parkways are essentially well-groomed freeways.) Trust me, this is easily one of the most interesting books you’ll ever read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Moses grew up an idealist to become a man of great vision. He truly worked wonders throughout New York state from the early 1920s till the 1960s. That said, he did it all by chucking his idealism in favor or raw, virtually unchecked power. He decided that to get things done, he first needed to accumulate power or make friends with those who already had it. He learned the tricks of what would become his trade at the feet of New York governor Al Smith and Belle Moskowitz, Smith’s right hand woman. And one of those tricks was taking advantage of the bill drafting process–advantage, that is, of the fact that most legislators don’t read what they vote on.

With that background, let me quote from Chapter 10: The Best Bill Drafter in Albany.

Once, no reformer, no idealist, had believed more sincerely than [Moses] in free and open discussion. No reformer, no idealist, had argued more vigorously that legislative bills should be fairly debated, and that the debates should be published so that the citizenry could be informed on the issues.

But free and open debate had not made his dreams come true. Instead, politicians had crushed them. And now he was going to make sure that, with the exception of Al Smith and Belle Moskowitz, no one–not citizenry, not press, not Legislature–was going to know what was in the bills dealing with parks that the Legislature was going to pass. The best bill drafter in Albany set to work.

First and foremost, parks were land, and land was generally acquired by government through condemnation. But condemnation in 1924 was a slow process, since the state could not take title to property until a condemnation commission set its value. And since the property’s owner could appeal to the courts if not satisfied with the commission’s evaluation, he could delay the state further. He [the property owner] therefore possessed in his opposition to the state a weapon, even if it was a small one–and in the hands of the barons of Long Island, small weapons could become large.

So one clause within Chapter 122 of the Laws of 1924, “AN ACT TO PROVIDE FOR the location, creation, acquisition and improvement by the state of parks, parkways and boulevards in the counties of Nassau and Suffolk,” a clause buried deep within the act, empowered the Long Island State Park Commission to acquire land by condemnation and appropriation “in the manner provided by section fifty-nine of the conservation law.” (173-174, emphasis in original)

And what was so bad about that you ask, apart from burying the clause “deep within the act”? Well, how he defined “appropriation” within the act, for one. Moses’s bill defined “appropriation” not as “allocating funds to such and such a project” much like any legislator would have understood the term then and now. No, Moses defined appropriation “in the manner provided by section fifty-nine of the conservation law,” a law passed by the New York legislature in 1884 for a very specific purpose and used little since and then only in remote forests to preserve them. And under that 1884 law, appropriation was a procedure, according to Caro,

. . . in which a state official could take possession of the land by simply walking on it and telling the owner he no longer owned it–and that if he wanted compensation, he would have to apply to the condemnation commission himself. (174)

Caro also says that the appropriation “method had never ben used anywhere for more than 30 years because of doubts about its constitutionality. But the Legislature had never gotten around to repealing section fifty-nine” (174).

Moses didn’t stop there. In section eight of the bill, he wrote that the parks commission “had the right to operate parks.” He waited until section nine to tell anybody that read that far that “the term . . . parks as used in this act . . . shall be deemed to include . . . parkways . . . boulevards and also entrances and approaches thereto, docks and piers, and bridges . . . and such other appurtenances as the . . . commission shall utilize . . . ”

Section eight also gave the parks commission the right to “acquire . . . real estate.” The wary legislator had to read section ten to learn that “the term real estate as used in this act shall be construed to embrace all uplands, lands under water . . . and all real estate heretofore or hereafter acquired or used for railroad, street railroad, telephone, telegraph, or other public purposes . . .” As Caro points out, the words “lands underwater” were significant because they effectively undercut any claims a group of his biggest opponents, the “baymen,” had to their “‘sacred’ bay bottoms.”

There’s more to the story. As Caro captures it, “almost every clause in the act contained a sleeper” (175). And each of those sleepers and later ones like them in other bills, ordinances, charters, etc. helped Moses reign over parks and parkways and baseball parks, etc. etc. etc. in New York state well into the 1960s.

For me–and for you, I hope–the lesson is clear: bill drafting is a pathway to power. The drafting of and amendments to bills that are then rushed through Congress without time for interested parties to read and digest what’s in them is a ticket to greater power for some and a recipe for disaster for the rest of us. Be wary. Be very wary of the current immigration bill–unless and until we and our elected representatives have had time to read it.

One Response to “Why Your Senator Should Read the Damn Thing Before He or She Votes On It”

  1. […] Another two thumbs up for Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. It easily ranks among the top 5 books I’ve ever read, a mesmerizing study of power in the hands of one man, the New York state and City parks commissioner. A parks commissioner! […]

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