[Ed. Note: In recognition of the election of former state rep. Jim Lyons as the new GOP chairperson yesterday, I am updating this post from a couple years back. It counters the persistent myth that Speaker DeLeo’s iron control over the House, often exerted by way of secret backroom deals, works to the detriment of the minority party, a legend that Lyons perpetuated during his tenure in the Legislature and repeated again yesterday in his victory remarks to the State House News Service: “DeLeo and the top power-brokers control every aspect … and who does that hurt? It hurts us. And it’s time that we let the Democrats know what we stand for matters and my job and my goal as your party chair is to take them on.”
Umm, no. The minority party often benefits from the Speaker’s secret backroom deals. A case study, with receipts.]
In 2016, the House of Representatives was contemplating a baby step in the direction of criminal justice reform: the repeal of a statute, a relic of the war on drugs, that for 27 years had imposed a driver’s license suspension on any person convicted of any drug crime and a $500 fee to reinstate the license after the suspension time of one to five years had been served. Twenty-seven years ago, it was thought that the threat of a license suspension would deter drug use. We have since learned that it doesn’t and, what’s worse, it adds to the many obstacles to successful re-entry, As one of the state’s public defenders described the law to the Globe, “If you were going to develop a public policy to promote recidivism, isn’t this just the way you would do it?”
Repealing this law was fruit so low-hanging that even the state’s district attorneys and the Herald’s editorial board approved. The Senate had voted for repeal unanimously months before. The Speaker had expressed support. But some House Republicans weren’t ready, because, you know, thugs and drugs. As Representative Lyons put it, we must continue imposing suspensions on the thugs who are selling drugs to our family members.
When the House took up the question of repeal, four amendments to limit its reach were pending, all of them filed by Republican members. The first of the amendments was defeated on a voice vote without debate. Then the House stood in recess.
Legislative action in the House is punctuated by recesses, some brief and some lengthy. The cause of some of the recesses is the hashing out of backroom deals between House leadership and dissenting members. The many representatives not involved in the hashings out, not knowing how long a recess might last, often leave the chamber to return to their offices to tend to other business. When the recess is over, sometimes the first order of business is a roll call vote to ensure that a quorum is present. Sometimes, but certainly not always.
This particular recess lasted about a half hour. Then the presiding officer, Rep. Paul Donato of Medford, called the House to order, but did not ask for a quorum call. Instead he announced that an amendment was pending and called on the Clerk to read it. As the Clerk was beginning to read the amendment, Rep. Donato instructed him to dispense with the reading of the remainder of the amendment, then in quick succession called for a voice vote, pronounced that the yeas had prevailed over the nays and that the amendment had been adopted.
It all took about a minute for the House to vote to retain the license suspension law for some drug crimes, in keeping with the wishes of some of the Republican members. No one spoke in favor of the amendment or in opposition to it — it was a secret backroom deal. The Republican minority prevailed by merely threatening to debate the policy merits (if any) of its position. The Democratic majority was spared both a roll call vote and the need to bestir itself to counter whatever the GOP might have had to say.
After the vote, a House member requested a quorum call and Rep. Donato instructed the court officers to summon the members.
So next time you hear somebody complain that the effect of the Speaker’s iron control of the House is to silence the minority party, show them this.