TODAY’S STATE Legislature is a less democratic place than it was a quarter century ago. There are fewer open debates on bills, and rank-and-file members have less influence. One big reason for that is the tight control House leadership exercises over the legislative agenda.
Here’s an example: For more than a decade, supporters have pushed legislation to expand the state’s bottle bill to include noncarbonated products like bottled war and sports drinks. But though the advocacy group MassPIRG believes a majority of the House of Representatives supports the bill, the legislation has never made it to the floor for debate.
Now state Representative Dan Winslow, Republican of Norfolk, has proposed a smart idea to use the House’s own rules to make that body livelier and more open.
Under his plan, representatives from both sides of the aisle would agree to support one another’s effort to pry bills loose from the Ways and Means Committee or the Third Reading Committee, two panels that strong House speakers have often used to hold legislation they oppose or prefer not to debate. That isn’t an agreement to support the particular legislation on the merits, but simply to bring it to the floor for debate.
“I am a Republican in Massachusetts, so I am used to losing,’’ jokes Winslow. “But let’s at least have a discussion about it.’’
It takes a majority of House members present and voting to discharge legislation; this pact would take effect if and when a majority of the 160-member House signed on.
So far, the “Rule 28 Coalition,’’ named after the relevant House rule, includes all 33 House Republicans and two outspoken Democrats, Charles Murphy of Burlington and Harriett Stanley of West Newbury. Murphy is a particularly interesting addition; he served as majority whip until he was forced out by House Speaker Robert DeLeo in December.
“Many of our colleagues have expressed frustration over the past several years [about] the lack of substantive debate on the House floor, and many have surrendered to the current model that results in very few bills making it to the floor for consideration or debate,’’ Murphy wrote his Democratic colleagues in a recent e-mail. “The Rule 28 Coalition will change that model.’’
This week, top Democrats dismissed the Republican-led proposal as election-year politics targeting an imaginary problem. No doubt there’s some political positioning motivating this effort. Certainly DeLeo doesn’t rule with the iron hand of a Tom Finneran or even Sal DiMasi. And under DeLeo’s leadership, the House has passed some important reforms. Still, Murphy is right that Democrats routinely complain, though in hushed voices, about the slow pace of legislative proceedings and the relative paucity of floor debates. If Winslow’s effort were to succeed, it would push more decision-making authority down to the members, while creating a healthier, more regular competition among ideas.
Twenty-five years ago, under Speakers George Keverian and Charles Flaherty, free-wheeling debates were a much more regular affair. Back then, rank-and-file legislators were more active and empowered participants. They can be again, but for that to happen, they must assert themselves - and their prerogatives. The Rule 28 Coalition is an experiment in democracy and debate that’s worth supporting.