Following months of delay, the state House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a rules package that will extend some pandemic-era policies, but excludes several transparency initiatives such as making all members’ committee votes public.
Top House officials hailed the passage of the package, but groups on both the left and the right say it keeps key parts of lawmaking in Massachusetts inaccessible to the constituents elected officials are supposed to represent.
“Today’s vote definitely showed that the power in the State House — the speaker, the Rules Committee, even rank-and-file reps — will go to extreme lengths to defend their power,” said Ella McDonald, the communications director for the progressive group Act on Mass, which has pushed for transparency reforms.
The measure approved Wednesday by the Democrat-controlled House, 129-29, will make permanent the livestreaming of both formal and informal House sessions. Informals began being streamed during the pandemic. The new rules will also allow, but not mandate, that committees accept virtual public participation, giving discretion to committee chairs.
House Lawmakers overwhelmingly struck down amendments that would have made all committee vote tallies public, mandated that bills be made available for 48 hours before receiving a vote, and reinstated term limits for the Speaker of the House.
Under the adopted rules, the names of members voting against a bill in committee will be made public. But amendments that would have made full committee vote tallies publicly available were shot down by the House during an hours-long debate.
“The public is entitled to know how we act on their behalf,” said Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, a Somerville Democrat who introduced one of the proposals to make committee votes public.
Representative Bradley H. Jones Jr., the top Republican in the House, introduced a similar amendment, calling the proposal to make public only an aggregate tally and negative committee votes “a half-step.”
But both proposals were overwhelmingly rejected.
“A committee vote is reflective of a specific proposal at a moment in time during the committee process and policy development stage of our legislation,” said Representative Kate Hogan, a Stow Democrat who serves in House leadership. “Support or opposition can, and should change, as the legislation is refined through the committee process, and as members learn more about any given topic from colleagues, experts, and the public.”
Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat, said the changes the new rules package makes — publishing aggregate totals and the names of members who vote “no” in committee on the Legislature’s website — are “sufficient in terms of transparency.” He added that affirmative committee votes do not necessarily equate to support for the passage of a bill.
“A vote in the negative is very clear,” Wagner said. “A vote in the affirmative is less clear.”
Representative Christopher M. Markey, a Dartmouth Democrat, pressed for an amendment that would have required bills to be made public for a 48-hour window before they are voted on by the House. But other members said it would prevent the passage of time-sensitive legislation and slow down the body, especially at the end of the session.
The House also turned back a proposal by Representative Tami L. Gouveia, an Acton Democrat who is running for lieutenant governor, that would have instituted eight-year term limits for the House speaker.
“Nothing has really changed in the building, and especially in the House,” said Paul Craney, a spokesperson for the right-of-center Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance. “The big reforms that would bring about more accountability and transparency once again were shot down.”
Legislators normally debate rules changes at the start of the session. But this year, the discussion has been pushed back for months while the body has been governed by COVID-19 emergency rules, which are set to expire on July 15.
Hogan lauded the approved rules passage for its provision allowing hybrid committee hearings to continue. The format “has been a thumbs up” during the pandemic, she said, with a majority of committee chairs expressing “a desire to retain elements of such hearings going forward.”
“At its core, the hybrid structure is about access and equity,” Hogan said on the House floor while speaking in support of the rules package. “[The] structure not only helps increase the ease of access for our constituents, but it also helps empower those who have faced barriers in the past to physical participation in the legislative process.”
Despite the hours-long debate that took place before the passage of the new rules package on Wednesday, the measure will not take effect until Oct. 1. The House also approved a measure Wednesday that extends the emergency rules governing the body through that day, which will allow remote voting to continue until then.
The new rules will also create three new committees and an ethics law training program for all House members and staffers.
Rules jointly governing the state House and Senate have not advanced out of a joint conference committee.
The adoption of the House rules package comes after a report released last week by an internal rules committee recommended a number of the proposals adopted Wednesday, including continuing livestreaming sessions, publishing negative committee votes along with aggregate tallies, and allowing for remote access to bill hearings.
Despite the months-long delay, lawmakers had only a few hours to file amendments to the proposed rules package on Tuesday evening, drawing the ire of some House members. A total of 17 amendments were filed between 1 p.m. Tuesday, when the bill was introduced during an informal House session, and the amendment deadline of 5 that evening.