sausage metaphor

Volume 25, Number 1, January 2002

Editor's Note: This article appeared in  NCSL's magazine, State Legislatures, September 2001, pages 12-15. Copyright 2001, National Conference of State Legislatures. All rights reserved. To order copies or to subscribe, contact the marketing department at (303) 830-2200.

The Legislature as Sausage Factory:
Itís About Time We Examine This Metaphor

When you get right down to it, making sausage is a lot different than making laws, no matter what the old saw says.

By Alan Rosenthal

If you spend any time hanging around legislatures or around Congress for that matter, you will inevitably hear the expression, "There are two things you donít want to see being madeósausage and legislation." Attributed to Otto von Bismark (1815-1898), Germanyís chancellor, the metaphor of sausage making and lawmaking has had a remarkably long run. But, I wonder, does it still apply or are todayís sausages and legislation on separate tracks, unlike in the 19th century?

In connection with a book I am writing, I have been closely observing lawmaking in four states. So when I had the opportunity to observe sausage making at the Ohio Packing Company, I took it.

Established as a neighborhood butcher shop in 1907, Ohio Packing has two processing facilities in Columbus, one of which turns out 40,000 pounds of sausage a day. As sausage factories go, this is a medium-sized plant. Larger plants are more automated and have more bells and whistles, but the process is nearly the same. Rick Carter, the quality control manager in the facility, served as my guide.


Sausage making occurs in distinct stages, each of which takes place in a specified room or area. First comes the raw materials cooler, where sausage ingredients are mixed according to computer formulations. A vat will hold 2,000 pounds of one-quarter fat trimmings and three-quarters lean trimmings. At the second stage, the raw materials proceed to the sausage kitchen. A grinder processes up to 40,000 pounds per hour, a blender allows water and seasoning to be added, an emulsifier reshapes the content into a new form, and natural hog casings are stuffed with ingredients.

The cooking process is the third stage. Huge processing ovens dry, smoke, cook or steam the sausage. A gas fire, using hickory chips, provides natural smoking. The chilling or holding area is the fourth stage. Here, the sausage sits around waiting to be packaged, which comes fifth and is accomplished by three large machines. With the assistance of 10 to 15 packagers, the machines wrap multiple sausages in plastic film. Sixth is storage in a huge freezer with a capacity of about a million pounds. Finally, seventh is the shipping area where wrapped, packaged sausage waits to be loaded on trailer trucks.


At first glance, sausage making and lawmaking would appear to be a lot alike.

Just as pork, beef and chicken make their way stage by stage to the shipping docks, so a bill is introduced, reviewed by a committee, considered on the floor of one house and then further reviewed by committee and on the floor of the other house. The two houses have to concur before the bill proceeds to the governor for his or her decision to sign, not sign or veto. In sausage making what you see is what you get. However, the "How a Bill Becomes a Law" formulation that is supposed to describe the process in Congress and state legislatures is way off the mark. So, letís compare the processes of sausage making and lawmaking in some of their significant dimensions.

Accessibility. It is not easy to get into a sausage factory, unless you work there or are a raw ingredient. Because of the possibilities of liability and contamination, the public is barred. I could not get in on my own recognizance, but had to secure a letter of introduction from the president of the Ohio Senate. Such a letter is not needed to get into the legislative process. The statehouse is most accessible. Public tours are offered. More important, people can observe the legislature indirectly through the media and more directly through C-Span coverage, which is aired in almost half the states. Constituents can visit with their legislators at home or in the capital. Furthermore, members of the public not only are observers, but, mainly through interest groups and their lobbyists, are also participants. They can make demands and help shape what comes out. Contamination is welcome in the legislature; it is a major element of democracy.

Coherence. The 60 people of Ohio Packing who make sausage work in different areas and engage in different operations. But they are all part of one team, making a variety of products according to specification. No one tries to introduce a substitute sausage or attach a bratwurst amendment to a frankfurter. No one wants to prevent a sausage from coming out. In the legislative process, there may be as many teams as there are individual members of the particular legislature. There is a Republican team, a Democratic team, a House team, a Senate team, a liberal team, a conservative team, an urban team, a suburban team and so on. Often, as in Congress and many states today, these teams are quite evenly matched. These teams are not in the business of producing the same product, but often are competing with one another over legislation and over the state budget.

Regularity. Sausage making strives for uniformity. Constant testing takes place to ensure the proper measurement of ingredientsófat content, moisture, seasoning and so forth. The process is strictly regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose applicable regulations currently run into thousands of pages (there were only 86 pages of federal regulations in 1914) and whose inspector makes at least one visit a day to check on the operations of the Ohio Packing Company. In addition, the process is monitored diligently in-house by quality control personnel.

Not so with the legislative process, where uniformity is virtually unheard of, measurement of content is illusory, and just about every billóand certainly every important billógets individualized treatment. At the outset, one can predict what will come out of the sausage factory. It is impossible to predict what will come out of the legislature. We are pretty sure that every year or two we will have a budget, but that is as far as certainty goes.

Efficiency. Sausage making has to be efficient if Ohio Packing is to survive and prosper. Only a few weeks elapse from the time the raw materials are unloaded at the shipping dock to the time when the finished products are loaded onto trucks bound for distributors and retailers. And most of that time is spent on a shelf, waiting for orders to arrive. Not so with the legislative process. Noncontroversial bills may be enacted within a month or so, but significant legislation may take years before enactment. Not infrequently, the legislature fails to meet its budget deadline, as New York has failed for 17 consecutive years, or fails to finish its budget before constitutional adjournment, as is the case of Minnesota this year. Legislatures are hardly efficient in any economic sense. Nor should we expect them to be.

Comprehensibility. The process of making sausage ought not be minimized; it is complex. But it is also comprehensible. In an hour-and-a-half tour, I could figure it out. I have been a student of the legislative process for more than 30 years, but I still canít figure it out. The legislature is too human, too democratic and too messy to be totally comprehensible.

Product. There is no denying that sausage comes in many varieties. Ohio Packing produces 250 different items, although most are variations on the same theme: breakfast and Italian sausage, bratwurst, frankfurters, bologna and salami are the major items under the sausage umbrella. The brand names that Ohio Packing supplies also vary. Harvest Brand is the companyís own label. Through a license agreement with Ohio State University, it also manufactures and sells Buckeye Hot Dogs and Brutus Brats; and it is the coast-to-coast distributor of Schmidtís Bahama Mama (a spicy, smoked sausage).

Whatever the brand, however, the labeling required by USDA provides consumers with more information than they could possibly absorb: the brand name; product name; ingredients by proportion, including seasoning; nutrition facts; inspection legend; net weight statement; signature line (that is, who manufactured the sausage); and a handling statement.


Legislation is much more diverse than sausage, law is much greater in scope. And it is much more indeterminate. Consumers can read the enactment and the bill analyses leading up to it, but they can never be sure of how a law or program will be funded and implemented and how it will actually work. No accurate labeling system has ever been devised.

The products as well as the processes of sausage making and lawmaking are almost entirely different. Bismark has been at rest for more than a century; his metaphor ought to be laid to rest also. We can search for another metaphor, although I doubt that we will find one. The legislative process in Congress and the states is sui generis, incomparable, not like anything else in our experienceóand pretty much the way it ought to be.

Alan Rosenthal is a professor of political science at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

In Search of the Perfect Metaphor

The legislature has been compared in other metaphors as well as Bismarkísóamong others, to a circus, marketplace and zoo.

Two interesting metaphors are offered by John A. Straayer in his book, The Colorado General Assembly. First is the legislature as an arena in which "a score of basketball games are progressing, all at one time, on the same floor, with games at different stages, with participants playing on several teams at once, switching at will, opposing each other in some instances and acting as teammates in others."

Second is the legislature as a casino, where there are lots of tables, lots of games, the stakes are high, there are winners and losers, but the outcome is never final, for there is always a new game ahead.

Just because the legislature as sausage factory does not stand the test of empirical examination doesnít mean there isnít a metaphor that can do the job. State Legislatures invites legislators, legislative staff and other readers to offer metaphorical candidates, even ones that only apply to part of the process or apply only in part, but not entirely.

Mail your submissions to Sharon Randall, NCSL, 1560 Broadway, Suite 700, Denver, CO 80202 or fax to 303-863-8003 or e-mail to [email protected]

©2001, National Conference of State Legislatures. All rights reserved.

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