A Tsunami of Truthiness: Anatomy of one House of Representatives Debate

Good comments below the fold. More debate does not necessarily = better debate, but that's democracy for you. - promoted by charley-on-the-mta

(More thoughts on the “Rule 28 Coalition” idea following last month’s post on the subject by State Rep. Dan Winslow.)

The Boston Globe editorial board thinks that there is too little debate in our state’s House of Representatives because the Speaker keeps too many bills bottled up in committees. The Globe expressed this view in an editorial endorsing the Rule 28 coalition, a GOP effort to unite a majority of representatives behind a plan to use House rules to force bills onto the floor for debate.

All 33 of the House Republicans have joined the coalition. At last count, two of the 125 House Democrats have done so. The Globe thinks that everyone should be on board — after all, what could be more democratic than more debate?

Perhaps many of those who haven’t joined know from experience that debate rarely occurs in a vacuum and the quantity of debate does not guarantee its quality. One case study: the House budget debate in 2010.

That year (an election year) several GOP reps filed an amendment to the annual budget entitled “Restrictions on Public Benefits.” The purpose of the amendment, they explained, was to prohibit “illegals” from receiving unemployment insurance, welfare, food stamps or other benefits. This is a favorite plank in the Tea Party platform, never mind the fact that it was (and is) already the law. The GOP amendment required everyone applying for any public benefit to appear in person and produce a driver’s license to verify eligibility. The lead sponsor was Rep. Jeffrey Perry from Cape Cod. Seeking the GOP nomination for an open U.S. Congressional seat, he was looking for media exposure, as all candidates do. He was also looking for an opportunity to change the subject from his complicity in a police misconduct case.

To shop the amendment, the GOP went first to the “Mass GOP to Talk Radio” pipeline (featured on the Mass GOP website). On the first day of the budget debate, Rep. Perry called in to the Howie Carr show. Howie and Jeff agreed that the amendment made only the very simple and modest request that applicants for public benefits appear in person to “present their papers,” and that anyone who did not support the amendment must be in favor of continuing to allow “illegals” to receive benefits. The reddest-meat portion of the program was provided by a caller named Bill, who warned that

“the amount of people that can come – float, swim, fly, walk in — is infinite. We will sink our nation, economically — they will defeat the nation…[In Mexico], whole villages are talking about coming here and it’s the part of the village that never wanted to work, has no ambition – that’s why they didn’t come here 10 years ago. Hard work, working 70 hours a week is not what they want to do. And that’s what the next wave is going to be – it’s going to be a dependent class.

Howie and Jeff then reminded listeners to call their state representatives to let them know there is “going to be a consequence” if they don’t vote for the amendment.

The calls that Jeff Perry asked for poured into the State House. Many of the callers were even more outlandishly xenophobic and conspiratorial than caller Bill had been. For the remainder of the budget debate, the Herald continued to flog the story, always assuming that a law restricting eligibility for public benefits was a brand new idea instead of one that had been in place for years. Even the frequently rational Margery Eagan got on board: “I’m pretty moon-batty. But even bats like me can support an amendment to the state budget preventing illegal immigrants over 18 from getting many state and federal benefits…”

On the third day of debate, the House devoted two hours to the amendment. Efforts to point out that the state already has eligibility screenings for public benefits were drowned out, as were discussions of the costs of the amendment in both money and convenience. (For example, requiring those applying for unemployment insurance — 35,000 in the month of the debate, April 2010, alone — to appear in person to “present their papers” when they could otherwise apply over the telephone and have their social security numbers verified electronically would have created a bureaucratic nightmare of the kind that talk radio usually loves to hate). But rationality was no match for the specter of whole villages of Mexicans deeply averse to work heading north to Massachusetts to collect welfare. As a technical matter, the amendment was narrowly defeated, but the GOP’s appeal to truthiness propelled the immigration issue to the Senate to dominate debate there as well.

In the end, after this nativist spasm had, for the time being, spent itself, the budget included provisions that reiterated the eligibility screenings for public benefits that had been in effect the whole time. The Governor observed that all the brouhaha had been about “inventing a villain for political purposes.” The Globe lamented the “rancorous” quality of the debate and wished that legislative bodies would “cool the rhetoric and debate the facts.”

The Globe might take another look at that opinion in light of its recent calls for “livelier” and more “free-wheeling” debate. And any Representatives still deciding whether to join with their 35 counterparts to force more debate in the House of Representatives might first want to find out what’s in the “Mass GOP to Talk Radio” pipeline these days. After all, the House budget debate is coming up again next month. And 2012 is another election year.

(Cross-posted here.)


9 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Hester, I agree that you have found a good example

    of how demagogues can take over an issue and turn the debate over that issue into a circus. But one example like this doesn’t invalidate debate as a critical component of the democratic process.

    In the end, as you note, the anti-immigration measure was defeated — after the debate took place. Debate can also be a positive and revealing exercise. And it is the unfortunate fact that the all-powerful legislative leaders in this state are able to bottle up a lot of important bills in compliant committees — bills that could benefit from debate and the consequent exposure to the light of day.

    • I couldn't agree more

      I think the analogy is Town Meeting. Every year you get derailed by some silly argument over a photo copier or whether the snow plow was overpriced. If you just looked at that one debate, you’d think the whole process was idiocy.

      But when you look at the meeting in total, the sum of all the debates, you see good governance.

  2. The Antidote for Darkness is More Light

    Sorry to disagree Hester. The antidote for irrational debate is more rational debate. Not shutting down the democratic process. No matter. It’s clear that the majority will not join http://www.rule28.com, but my hope is that we’ll at least revisit the rules and how process affects product in the State House. The only things standing between us and progress are the guardians of the status quo. If you think things can’t possibly be better than they are now, you’re welcome to stand with ‘em.

    dan-winslow   @   Wed 21 Mar 1:36 PM
    • non sequitur...

      Sorry to disagree Hester. The antidote for irrational debate is more rational debate. Not shutting down the democratic process.

      It’s hard to disagree with something you’ve apparently not bothered to spend too much time reading.

      I don’t see anywhere that Hester advocates shutting down debate. I see a rather cogent analysis of why more people haven’t joined up with the rule28 cotillion…. specifically that A) it’s not clear why the GOP led rule28 is fighting against the GOP led ‘talk media pipeline’ and 2) how effective can the GOP be when it is, in fact, a house divided… ? Or… is it?

      You’re response suggests that you don’t see a solution outside of the wholesale capitulation to the rule28 people getting exactly and only what they want. Which is a teensy bit more arrogant than the bloviators on the GOP talk-radio-pipeline… but only teensy.

  3. The Process Liberal Problem

    Writing about how liberals seem to overlook Bill Maher in their condemnation of Rush Limbaugh, Stanley Fish on March 12 observed:

    These questions come naturally to those who have been schooled in the political philosophy of enlightenment liberalism. The key move in that philosophy is to shift the emphasis from substantive judgment — is what has been said good and true? — to a requirement of procedural reciprocity — you must treat speakers equally even if you can’t abide what some of them stand for. Basically this is the transposition into the political realm of the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Don’t give your friends a pass you wouldn’t give to your enemies.

    Republican Senators and Representatives no longer particularly like procedural reciprocity, but we liberals really, really like it, but maybe it’s time to reconsider that.

    I come away from Hesterprynne’s post concerned and confused. We do want openness and debate, but we don’t want the Legislature turned into a soundbite factory where meaningless legislation is debated for the sole benefit of political advertising. Our Republican minority (excepting a minority of that minority) would be happy to turn it into a soundbite factory — the better to stop legislation they oppose.

  4. I wish there were more debate -- and more rational debate -- too,

    and intended this post to diagnose one of the reasons there’s not enough of that at present. Thanks for everybody’s thoughtful comments.

  5. To continue mincing words

    The antidote for irrational debate is more rational debate.

    On its face, this statement seems logical, but rational debate is the absence of irrational debate, NOT the antidote. Vitamin D and sunshine are the antidote to rickets; the absence of rickets is NOT the antidote to rickets.

    I agree that more debate is desirable. I think the problem with the state legislature is that the leadership has way too much power. I don’t see giving the Republicans a soap box as a solution to the problem.

    • Amen

      These are each very good points.

      We have another problem, though, that ties into the very real concern you raise about the power of the leadership — we have far too many Republican legislators who run and are elected as Democrats because the GOP has been dead (or at least comatose) for so long. The ugly specter of Democrats working to re-elect Scott Brown plays into the leadership problem because the current system makes their real loyalties easier to hide.

      The most immediate problem we face in Massachusetts is that our allegedly Democratic legislature flatly refuses to raise taxes. This refusal to raise taxes is either delusional, dishonest, or both. It is no accident that it emerges from a deeply pervasive culture of corruption. It is a Republican policy, whatever party affiliation is claimed by its proponents. Our legislative leadership carries the flag for this delusional and dishonest claptrap, and the current system encourages them to do so.

      Giving the titular Republicans a soap box not only is not a solution, it actively worsens the problem.

      Yes, the absence of rational debate is a real problem. Even more real is the absence of a rational economic policy. We are destroying the things that makes Massachusetts the place where Massachusetts residents want to live, and the perpetrators (on both sides of the aisle) behave as if they are immune to the consequences of their corruption and greed.

      Are they right or wrong?

  6. The antidote for irrational debate is more rational debate.

    is a First Amendment remedy, not an indictment of the parliamentary process. Even Winslow knows the chatter stops at the bang of the gavel – or did he let defendants continuing talking anyway?

    BTW: thanks for the Jeff Perry reference. I had forgotten…Jeff Perry, Scott Brown and women – a hat trick!

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