There’s a new guy on the rostrum as the 192nd session of the Massachusetts House begins work, but an astonishing sameness in the way business is conducted — the same lack of transparency, a place where being a lawmaker is an insider’s game.
It doesn’t have to be that way, and there are at least a vocal handful of newly elected legislators who could make a difference, who could — even in the age of COVID-19 — make changes in a legislative body that often seems as ancient a relic as the Sacred Cod that hangs above the House chamber.
At the start of each session comes the all-too pro forma election of the speaker, followed by the equally pro forma adoption of rules, tweaked only marginally to keep up with the times — like keeping to a minimum late-night sessions. The players may change, but the rules and laws that keep the Legislature shrouded in mystery endure.
And so the Legislature continues to remain exempt from the state’s public records law, which means meeting agendas, e-mails, texts, and expense and travel reports (not involving campaign funds) are all not required to be in public view. The pandemic has served to exacerbate that problem.
At the end of the last session, as wide-ranging bills involving police reform, climate, health care, and economic development were being negotiated behind closed doors by a handful of lawmakers (three from each branch on each of those issues), the public was not even entitled to know how often those conference committees were meeting or even if they were meeting.
Even in “normal” years, bills that appear to have widespread support, as evidenced by dozens of named sponsors, simply disappear in the Rules or Ways and Means committees, never to be seen again. A sex education bill that passed the Senate 33-2 last January died at the end of the last session, never having emerged from the House Ways and Means Committee. It’s the same fate the bill has met since 2012.
This is no way to conduct the people’s business.
A group of progressives, some of whom won election to the Legislature this fall, and more than a dozen incumbents pledged during their campaigns to work to make the Legislature more accountable and their own on-the-job conduct more transparent.
The pledge was the agenda centerpiece of the advocacy group Act on Mass, whose cofounder, Erika Uyterhoeven, won election this fall to the Somerville seat of retiring Representative Denise Provost.
As a newly elected state rep, Uyterhoeven said in an interview that she’s committed to support “any reform that can make our Legislature more democratic,” not just for its members but also as a way to reach out to the public.
“For example, requiring 72 hours to read a bill is not just for myself as a legislator,” she added, “but so I can get feedback from my constituents.”
The progressive lawmakers pledged to make all their committee votes public. If chosen to chair a committee, they pledged to make all votes taken and testimony received by that committee public and to stand and demand roll call votes on bills or amendments on any piece of legislation they have cosponsored or anything of a similar nature. That may sound rather modest, but getting a roll call vote is no small thing.
And the dirty little secret revealed quite accurately on the Act on Mass website is that “A legislator can say they support a bill by co-sponsoring it, but that does not actually make the bill more likely to pass. It is well known that some legislators even lobby in secret against bills they have co-sponsored.”
At the start of the last session, progressives and Republicans found common ground on a number of rules reforms but ultimately fell short in the House. The Senate went its own way and has since then included recorded committee votes in the official legislative history of a bill, something 27 other states do, according to Act on Mass.
Another effort is expected this time around to:
▪ Make all committee votes public on the Mass.gov website.
▪ Make all written testimony submitted to committees available on the website.
▪ Require at least 72 hours between the time a bill is released until the time it can be voted on — with provisions for a two-thirds vote to waive the rule in an emergency.
If ever there were a moment for common-sense rules reforms aimed at making lawmaking more transparent, at restoring public trust in an institution mired in complacency, it is now. House members new and old forget that at their own electoral peril.
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