Well, the House is gonna House; DeLeo’s gonna DeLeo. Or maybe things are different this time: There really does seem to be an appetite for rules changes within the MA House, and today they vote on a package of reforms.
Among the handful of amendments that had been filed by Tuesday afternoon, two came from Representative Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat who’s seeking to make public any bill 72 hours before it’s taken up by the House and to allow lawmakers at least 30 minutes to review an amendment filed after a formal session is called.
One major change in the joint rules proposal would append a new way of lawmaking to the recent requirement barring the establishment of House-Senate conference committees in the final couple weeks before the end of formal sessions – often a period of intense legislative horse-trading a few months before the biennial election. Under the proposal, if one of the branches does not act on concurring in the appointment of a conference committee, that branch would forfeit its previous vote on legislation and concur on the action taken by the other branch.
As noted here in this exposé/jeremiad by ex-lobbyist Phil Sego, the House has been run in a completely opaque, top-down way — not merely to the public, but to its own members. The outcome of complex legislation — including shelving it entirely — happens behind closed doors, with no schedule or regular assembly-line process. This has the effect of minimizing public scrutiny and input, and empowering special interests, those who can afford lobbyists inside the building and with the ear of a very small cadre of leadership.
Who retains all the power? Said Sego:
Some years ago, representing the Massachusetts Sierra Club, I met with Speaker Robert DeLeo along with other allied groups. I had been in numerous meetings with the Speaker. This meeting was the culmination of many months of hard work by me and many other lobbyists. I told him that a coalition of groups had polled members of the House and we knew that a sizeable majority of the members supported our bill.
“They’ve privately told me that they really don’t want your bill to pass,” the Speaker said.
Whether this was true or not isn’t relevant. It’s possible that the House Speaker had no conversations with anyone about our bill. Or maybe our bill really was secretly unpopular. I’ll never know. But what I immediately came to realize was that I could have 159 of the 160 members all love a bill, but unless I had the Speaker’s “blessing” I had nothing.
This isn’t right. Ironically, and in keeping with tradition, the process of the rules change is higgledy-piggledy — empowering, again, leadership:
The Massachusetts House of Representatives is preparing to delve into debate on Wednesday over its governing rules, with one notable caveat: It didn’t set a deadline for lawmakers to file amendments.
The change, while seemingly technical, means that any proposed changes to the chamber’s operations could emerge up until the final vote — a departure from past years that’s adding fuel to criticisms the chamber is sacrificing transparency at a time when it’s deciding the very parameters of its legislative process.
This matters for everything. It is the reason why the House kills bills that the Senate passes with wide bipartisan support. It is why fossil and utility lobbyists still dominate our energy and climate policy. It’s why we can’t get equitable school funding. It is why we can’t get a Safe Communities Act.
Will enough House members vote for a package that the Speaker may secretly oppose? Will the House progressives hold together with their Speaker-disfavored colleague Jon Hecht, and Cambridge Rep Mike Connolly, in holding for strong reforms? In re-nominating the Speaker, Rep. Ruth Balser boasted that progressives “pulled up a chair and sat down” at the table of power. Really? Time for dinner.
What say you:
- Sean Garballey
- Dave Rogers
- Marjorie Decker
- Lori Ehrlich
- Denise Provost
- Ruth Balser
- Christine Barber
- [other members of House Progressive Caucus listed here — a slightly dated list from last summer]
Are you on board? Will you have each others’ backs on this? Or will you again splinter and find your own reasons to continue a chaotic, murky, undemocratic process — with decidedly un-progressive results? A process which frustrates the public and policy stakeholders, and makes you look complicit and ineffectual?
It is said that politicians act differently when they know they’re being watched. We’re watching!