The Massachusetts House begins a new term Wednesday with a new leader, anointed by the just-retired leader, who served 12 years in that role after trashing an eight-year term limits rule he himself had proposed.
And so it goes on Beacon Hill.
There are few guardrails on the (largely) benevolent dictatorship that is the governing model for the House speakership, but an eight-year term limit had been one of them — until it wasn’t. And while it seems unlikely the newly elected speaker, 74-year-old Ronald Mariano, would stretch his tenure into the next decade, it would surely increase public confidence if lawmakers showed enough interest in reform to resurrect that eight-year limit.
Term limits are just one element of the set of rules adopted by the House and Senate at the start of each two-year session — much of it decades-old parliamentary boilerplate but now including ethics rules and anti-sexual harassment policies.
Limits on the speaker’s term have a somewhat checkered history. (The 40-member Senate, which still observes an eight-year limit on its presidency, seems not to have had much controversy over such rules — at least not since the 17-year run of William Bulger ended in 1996.) The House first adopted an eight-year limit in 1985. It was intended, as Representative Byron Rushing told his House colleagues back in 2001, to bring to an end a two-year period of political chaos and infighting.
“The House decided we needed to have regularity in this process,” he said. “That regularity would be that we would have an eight-year term for the speaker, that there would be a beginning and an end, and we knew when that end would happen.”
But in 2001, over Rushing’s objections, the House waived those term limits to allow Speaker Tom Finneran to stay in the job until he resigned in 2004 to take a job in the private sector — several months ahead of his 2005 federal indictment on perjury charges.
When Speaker Sal DiMasi resigned in 2009, six months ahead of his indictment on federal corruption charges, and Bob DeLeo won the speakership, he proposed bringing back the eight-year term limit as a way to build public trust. Six years later, he deemed it not such a good idea after all.
“Other members have approached me about the importance of staying on and completing this type of work and continuing this roll of success,” DeLeo told reporters in 2015. “I look at it as important relative to the institution and probably even more importantly for whoever the next speaker may be. It gives us an opportunity not to be hamstrung by a rule that limits the amount of time that anyone can serve.”
And so after 12 years in the job, DeLeo, with the kind of arrogance bred of someone who can bend an institution to his will because there are no limits on his tenure, decided to run one more time for his Winthrop legislative seat — a seat he surely had no intention of ever being sworn into on Jan. 6.
But this is no longer about Bob DeLeo, who during those 12 years used his powerful position to enact some much needed progressive legislation on gun control, criminal justice reform, municipal health reform, increases in education funding, and this year deserves credit for pushing for police reform and the Roe Act to bolster abortion rights.
And it’s not even about newly minted Speaker Mariano, who during a recent interview dodged the question of how many years he might serve, but noted, “I guarantee it won’t be 12.”
About half of state legislatures observe term limits on their leaders in one or more of their branches, according to information provided by the National Conference on State Legislatures. That includes 14 states where the lieutenant governor presides over the state senate and is term-limited by virtue of that post. In some states, like Florida and Kansas, it’s by tradition. Only Maine actually has a state law requiring limits on legislative leaders.
And then, of course, there are such outliers as Illinois, where House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago at long last faces opposition as he goes for his 19th two-year term.
Saying “well, at least we’re not Illinois,” doesn’t exactly put the Massachusetts House on the path to good government. But restoring that eight-year limit just might. Those who remained all too silent as this most recent leadership change was engineered from the top — and those just entering the Massachusetts House and not yet tainted by the way it has done business — have a chance to set this right and restore term limits on the speakership.
Rushing, who lost his own bid for re-election in 2018, was right about there being value in having “a beginning and an end” to the service of any speaker. It’s not too late to make that happen in 2021.
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