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editorial | LEGISLATIVE DEBATE

Beacon Hill leaders stifle debate among legislators

It won’t come as a bolt from the blue that freewheeling debate, robust dissent, and meaningful roll call votes have become endangered species on Beacon Hill. The concentration of power in the hands of the House speaker and Senate president has had a strangulating effect on democratic decision-making, to the ongoing frustration of open-government advocates, political journalists, and at least some rank-and-file lawmakers.

But it is one thing to know in the abstract that the proceedings of the Massachusetts Legislature have little in common with the civics-class version of “How a Bill Becomes a Law.” It is something else to actually measure the disparity. That’s what MassINC, the nonpartisan Boston think tank, did this spring in CommonWealth, its quarterly magazine.

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The numbers are dispiriting. Since the mid-1980s, the amount of time the House and Senate have spent in session, and the number of issues decided through roll calls, have plunged. In 1985-86, under Speaker George Keverian, House members conducted 1,655 roll-calls, and were in session for a total of 1,030 hours — about 10 hours per week. By 2009-10, the House was meeting on average only five hours a week, and the number of roll calls had declined 70 percent, to just 513. The fall-off in the Senate is also dramatic.

It is true that legislative debates a generation ago could sometimes drag on for weeks and occasionally through the night. But better the sluggishness of real deliberation than the autocratic efficiency that prevails today, when the real decisions are made behind closed doors.

There’s a group of legislators called the “Rule 28 Coalition” for a House rule that allows a majority of representatives to force the discharge of any legislation from the traditional committee structure, who agreed to support each other in voting to bring to the floor any bill bottled up by the leadership. Unfortunately, the coalition is a long way from the 81 members it needs to take effect. While all 33 House Republicans have signed on, only three Democrats have done so.

More of them should. If rank-and-file lawmakers won’t resist the smothering of open democracy that has become the norm on Beacon Hill, nobody else will do it for them.

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