Those are the words of Phil Sego, retired lobbyist for the Sierra Club, on the workings of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In a devastating take-down of the autocratic, top-down MO of Bob DeLeo’s House, Sego does what apparently only the outgoing and retired can do, which is to tell the truth as it really is.
The long and short of it, much of which we’ve known: The Speaker has absolute power, and its abuse has indeed gotten worse under DeLeo. It does not matter if a bill is popular or not among the House’s rank and file, if the Speaker doesn’t take a particular shine to it. As we all know, the Speaker can banish those who speak out, oppose, or otherwise inconvenience him, by taking away committee chairs, staff, and so forth — not to mention ignoring that member’s legislative priorities and district take-home projects on the “cherry sheet”. For those who do rise up in rank, note how the term “powerful” — as in “powerful Ways and Means chair” — actually means “obedient”. For Ways and Means chair Jeffrey Sanchez, that “power” put him at odds on many issues with his constituents in JP/Roslindale, and they bounced him.
Sego’s piece patiently describes the legislative process as it actually happens — sort of a mangled, cynical Tim Burton version of the Schoolhouse Rock I’m Just a Bill. Every bit of is trenchant and quotable — so you must read the whole thing. Most heartbreaking to me is how popular bills with broad support among the membership get tossed aside on a whim, leaving the members to subsist on excuses to their constituents, rather than results to show.
What often happens is that a bill proposed by one of the House members, if it’s supported by the Speaker, will be held until the very last days — or hours — of the end of the session on July 31 (of the second year). This is one of the most important aspects of the Speaker’s hold on power. The Speaker needs the bill as leverage to ensure the sponsoring representative’s (or representatives’) allegiance. If a representative’s favorite bill were passed at the beginning of the session, what leverage would the Speaker have over him/her?
Bills that are not supported by the Speaker — but have somehow made it through the process — enter a black hole. These bills are never released by Ways and Means, and, therefore, die. This allows the Speaker to kill a bill, and allows the sponsoring representative to save face with his/her constituents. The representative’s refrain: “I got the bill all the way through the process, I even got a positive report from the committee, but the session ran out before we could vote on it.”
All of this is why I have told my Representative that I cannot support him anymore if he votes for DeLeo for Speaker. But truly I appreciate that both he as rep, and I as constituent, are in an impossible situation. As far as we know, there is no one stepping up to challenge DeLeo for the speakership. As far as we know, there is no progressive, reformist bloc to check the Speaker’s manifest abuses of power: The progressives don’t have each other’s backs, and so they get rolled every time.
This is why we can’t have nice things — like a realistic energy/climate policy; a sturdy MBTA that runs on time; protections for immigrants; equitable funding for schools. Even wage theft legislation lost out this year — wage theft! The consequences are real, even fearsome.
I’ll say it again (even if Sego won’t): DeLeo must go. And the House needs structural reform to empower its membership and create more transparent, responsive, democratic processes. Otherwise we’re all at the mercy of the whims and limited imagination of one guy.