“The policy outcomes are being derailed by the politics inside the building.”
That was state Senator Daniel Wolf’s assessment when he spoke to the Boston Globe shortly after the 2015 legislative session ended last week. That article emphasized how the “legislative session sputtered to an end,” and, indeed, it did. But our leaders on Beacon Hill were quick to stress the need to take a longer view. “If you look at our body of work, it has been good,” said House Speaker Robert DeLeo, presumably with a straight face.
Now back at their districts, he and others will undoubtedly spin the same narrative to their supporters at various fundraisers and local party breakfasts. And most of us in attendance will clap, clap, clap and heap praise upon them when they do. But it’s far past time for those of us who give a damn to call out this nonsense. It was a bad year for the Democratic leadership in this state, generally, and for the House leadership, in particular.
At the start of the year, as our state’s public transit system faltered, House Democrats made DeLeo Speaker For Life, abolishing the term limits that he placed on his Speakership just six years ago. In doing so, they stressed the need for experienced leadership in the House. Five weeks later, as entire rail lines remained shut down, that wonderfully experienced House Leadership scoffed at the idea actually doing something about it. Meanwhile, a host of well-connected Democratic leaders from across the state backed several half-baked versions of a Boston 2024 Olympics proposal and consumed much of the remaining local political oxygen in the process. And as that effort halted during the first half of the year, so too did activity on Beacon Hill. In fact, the Legislature took the fewest number of roll call votes during that time span in a generation!
But things went from bad to worse during these last few months, as House leadership flexed their glutes and sat on a bunch of bills which all Democrats should support. As a result, improvements to the state’s solar policy, reforms to public records law, and civil rights for transgender folks will all have to wait until 2016 (if we’re lucky; it’s a campaign year, after all). I was especially dismayed as I watched the House Leadership keep the transgender rights bill under lock in committee, even as many in the business community, a majority of our state’s Congressional delegation, and the general public all expressed support for it. Even DeLeo expressed support for it (!), albeit at the very last minute–and of course, he was noncommittal as to whether the House would take it up at all going forward. But what did the House Leadership do when Governor Baker asked for a favor, like when he wanted to allow his revenue commissioner to sit on two corporate boards? Well, that was a different legislative process entirely, as jcohn88 recently noted in this space. DeLeo and House and Joint Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian Dempsey simply slipped in a change to the applicable law in a supplemental budget bill and hoped their fellow legislators nor anyone else would notice.
So what does the House leadership stand for? Not much in terms of Democratic policy, apparently. But it’s clear that what they care most about is power, and they use the legislative process to secure that power and exert influence over the rank-and-file. The revenue commissioner-story highlights the extent to which that legislative process is broken. It also highlights, as jcohn88 observed, the extent to which Governor Baker and the House Leadership are allies. They are, indeed, on the same team and want the same things.
Surely, we can do better than this, and we should demand that they do. Instead of the now-typical practices of back-room dealing and stone-walling on legislation, we should demand that House Leadership allow an open process that permits legislators to debate and take votes. But that also means that we should demand that rank-and-file Democrats no longer use DeLeo for cover from taking “difficult votes.” We should know where legislators actually stand when it comes to important issues.
We should, in other words, demand that our Democratic political leaders be less concerned with protecting their jobs and their power and actually lead–actually fight for the things we care about. If they’re unwilling to do that, then we should draft folks who are to run against them, starting next year.