The Massachusetts Legislature, which has seemed content to allow the executive branch to lead the state’s fight against the coronavirus, is poised to assert itself this week, summoning Governor Charlie Baker and his top aides before a new oversight committee to demand answers about the state’s coronavirus vaccine rollout.
Thursday’s live-streamed hearing — billed as the first of many — presents both an opportunity and a test for state lawmakers to press top Baker administration figures, including the governor himself, on what they’ve so far criticized in tweets and public statements as a shoddy and unpredictable distribution process.
It’s also a rare flex of legislative authority, and one of several signals that Democratic leaders are stepping beyond the role of the deferential partner to Baker in the state’s response to the pandemic.
Since declaring a state of emergency in March 2020, Baker has driven the state’s response with relative autonomy. It was the Baker administration that laid out the initial criteria for vaccine eligibility, based off recommendations from an advisory panel he formed, and it’s the Baker administration that has begun retooling its approach in the face of criticism.
For months, legislative leaders appeared content, by and large, to push the administration in private calls and back channels. Some lawmakers penned public letters on various concerns. But they never sought to curtail Baker’s emergency authority or override the emergency-era executive orders that have reshaped daily life by closing some businesses early in the pandemic, later limiting the number of customers in others, and requiring people to wear masks in public.
But missteps in the state’s vaccine rollout, lawmakers say, spurred them to take on a broader and more public oversight role. Democratic legislators have balked at allowing younger people who accompany older residents to vaccine sites to get shots themselves and criticized Baker for severely curtailing the number of doses going to cities and towns in order to divert them to the mass vaccination sites.
The Legislature has held occasional oversight hearings, but this one comes at a time of growing frustration and rare, intense public criticism of Baker, even as his approval ratings remain unscathed, according to polling.
“There’s a role for us to hold the governor accountable,” said state Representative Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat and vocal critic of Baker’s decisions amid the state of emergency. “From my perspective, there has been a need at the beginning for strong oversight, and there has been a lot of room for critique of the Baker administration. It feels like more people are realizing it.”
Even as the state has dramatically increased the number of people getting vaccinated in recent weeks, Democrats continue to knock the governor over ever-changing distribution plans and persistent inequities in who can access the shots. That frustration only intensified last week when the state’s vaccine website crashed just as 1 million more residents became eligible to schedule appointments.
Massachusetts residents nonetheless continue to hold Baker in high regard, with 74 percent approving of the job he’s done as governor and nearly the same amount — 71 percent — saying the same for his handling of the pandemic, according to a MassINC Polling Group survey released Monday.
Baker and Marylou Sudders, his health secretary, will appear before the oversight committee Thursday, aides confirmed, raising the hearing’s stakes but also fueling questions of how aggressively lawmakers will press a governor with whom they’ve generally worked well — and who remains so popular with their constituents.
Baker said at a news conference last week that “we look forward” to speaking with lawmakers, though he said he and other officials have regularly shared information about the rollout. Sudders has held weekly calls with legislators, for example.
Some Democrats outside the Legislature welcome the move by Beacon Hill leaders to escalate their role as a co-equal check on the administration.
“Oversight has been sorely needed for months now,” said Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone. “I hope it doesn’t end with just asking the governor questions but all of us [in local government]. We can bring all the experience of what the last year has been like.”
Representative Bill Driscoll, a Milton Democrat who co-chairs the new COVID-19 committee that’s holding the hearing, said he doesn’t regret waiting until now to convene oversight hearings because there have been ample “opportunities to engage” behind the scenes.
“What’s changed in these last 30 days is the vaccine. We all have expectations about how the vaccine rollout should go, and clearly they’re not being met,” Driscoll said. “Confidence has been shaken” in the Baker administration, he added, and “it’s become abundantly clear that the Legislature and the public need a lot more information.”
Several legislators argued they have been far more than mere observers during the pandemic. The Legislature for instance, first passed a moratorium on evictions early in the pandemic, and through the state budget, it put into law specific pandemic provisions — in some cases over gubernatorial objections — including the requirement his administration detail online how it’s spent federal funds.
“But if you’re not getting traction with back-channel conversations and suggestions, you’re going to shift to a more critical stance,” said state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat. “The role has shifted into a more impatient one because people are dying.”
This more aggressive posture by lawmakers has taken different forms. Immediately after Baker vetoed a sweeping climate change bill last month — a decision rooted in circumstance as much as disagreement — new House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen E. Spilka vowed to quickly return it to Baker’s desk, unchanged. Just two weeks later, they did.
The pair then unveiled the new joint COVID-19 committee, creating direct oversight of the executive branch’s pandemic plans. In the House, Mariano also created a panel that’s focused, in part, on tracking how the administration is handling the federal stimulus money flowing into the state.
“We have a good working relationship with the administration, but friends need to be able to speak the truth to each other,” said Representative Daniel J. Hunt, who chairs the new House committee. “We need to be marching to the same tune in order to recover from the COVID pandemic.”
Mariano himself has proven to be more willing to use the speaker’s bully pulpit than his low-key predecessor, Robert A. DeLeo. A former teacher, Mariano recently called for educators to move to the “head of the line,” and in interviews, criticized Baker for bungling the vaccine rollout plan, citing what he called “communications and operational shortcomings.” Mariano declined an interview request through his aides for this story.
Thursday’s hearing is an opportunity for lawmakers to press further on Baker’s decision-making and to signal to angry constituents where they should lay blame for problems in the rollout process.
Sudders regularly briefs state lawmakers, and they are sometimes clued into decisions before Baker announces them. But there hasn’t been “deep engagement on whether this decision is a good idea or not,” said state Senator Jo Comerford, a co-chair of the new oversight committee.
Comerford on Thursday tweeted a jab at Baker, playing off the image of an octopus, several arms short of being anatomically correct, that greeted visitors if they visited the state’s vaccination website while it was down. “The four-armed octopus is an apt metaphor for an incomplete @MassGovernor creature without enough limbs to do its work,” the Northampton Democrat wrote.
While lawmakers can file bills and override gubernatorial vetoes on the budget, the hearings, Comerford said, are a way to take “a more proactive position” with the administration.
Representative Tami Gouveia, who has a doctorate in public health, said she wishes the Legislature had conducted more oversight hearings earlier but acknowledged that now is a particularly crucial moment for them.
“This vaccine rollout is really bringing to light for a lot of legislators the mismanagement of the overall pandemic response,” she said.