Responding to growing calls for transparency in the way it conducts business, the Massachusetts House of Representatives approved new rules Wednesday — rules that fall well short of meeting those demands. Under the new guidelines, Massachusetts voters still won’t know how their representatives vote in many instances. Democracy, as one newspaper has put it, dies in darkness, and it’s a testament to the arrogance of one-party rule that the Massachusetts Democrats in charge of the House would continue to conceal from constituents such basic information as what laws they support.
Much of the heavy legislative lifting on Beacon Hill occurs in committees or joint committees, where groups of lawmakers hash out new bills on schools, housing, climate, and health care. Voters cannot adequately judge whether their representative is serving their interests without knowing how he or she votes in those committees. And yet, under the new rules, only representatives who vote “no” in House committee votes will be named. Those members who vote yes, or abstain from voting, will remain secret.
It’s an irrational distinction, because voters have just as much right to know what legislation their representatives support as that which they oppose. Publicizing the “no” votes in committee, alongside the overall vote tally, might seem like a half-step in the right direction that at least gives constituents enough information to make an educated guess about whether their representative voted yes. But it could also be a loophole in the making, since yes votes and non-votes are lumped together. The onus will be on the House to show that the new rule provides meaningful transparency.
The House also torpedoed a proposal to restore term limits for the speaker and to ensure that members and the public had 48 hours to read bills before a vote. That change would have prevented the spectacle of lawmakers voting on legislation just hours after it’s been revealed. One of the reasons members gave for opposing the 48-hour rule was especially odd: They were concerned that it could gum up the legislative process in the hectic final days of the legislative session. But the pile-up at the end of the session isn’t a law of nature. It’s the result of the way the Legislature chooses to operate. It’s almost as if lawmakers are using their own poor time management skills as an argument against reform.
The reasons given for opposing transparency in committee votes were even more underwhelming. “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. “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.” True as all that may be, shouldn’t voters know how, when, and in response to which “experts” their representatives change their minds? Protecting legislators from the ordeal of explaining to their constituents why or how their thinking evolved is not a legitimate goal in a democracy.
Now, it’s true that final floor votes on legislation are public, which ostensibly should provide a way for voters to hold their representatives accountable. But lawmakers (of both parties) protect one another by routinely approving legislation by unanimous votes. The North Korean-esque vote tallies in the Massachusetts Legislature aren’t fooling anyone: The fact that the House voted unanimously this year on controversial tax rules and the state budget, for instance, does not show that all 160 members of the House — Democrats and Republicans, progressives and centrists — have achieved perfect harmony. It shows only that they prefer to air their disagreements in private, where their constituents can’t see them, and suss out the real divides within the Legislature.
This isn’t the way democracy is supposed to work, and insisting on a Legislature that does its business in the open shouldn’t be a partisan cause. Indeed, opposition to the secretive House rules spans the ideological spectrum, from rank-and-file progressives to fiscal conservatives. More scrutiny may mean that legislators have to explain themselves more — but answering to the public is their job.
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