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OPINION

Open the State House — and legislators’ votes and committee proceedings

An ongoing struggle is getting the Massachusetts Legislature to operate in a fully democratic fashion.

Massachusetts is an outlier in failing to make committee votes automatically and easily available to the public.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Massachusetts faces challenges in building an open and responsive democracy. One is getting the state Legislature to operate in a fully democratic fashion.

Within the next few weeks, state senators and representatives will adopt joint rules for the new two-year legislative session. These rules are key to determining how democratic the lawmaking process will be and how well the public can monitor what its legislators do on its behalf.

In the last session, the Legislature couldn’t reach agreement on whether to make public the votes taken in legislative committees. Massachusetts is an outlier in failing to make committee votes automatically and easily available to the public. In other state legislatures and in Congress, these votes are routinely posted on an official website.

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In 2021, the Massachusetts Senate proposed joint rules that would have adopted this standard practice. However, the House refused to discuss the issue.

In rebuffing the Senate proposal, the House acted contrary to popular opinion. In nonbinding ballot questions in 2020 and 2022 in 36 House districts across the state, voters overwhelmingly supported posting committee votes. The level of support exceeded 74 percent in every district where the question was on the ballot and averaged 87 percent overall.

It’s not surprising voters want to know how their legislators vote in committee. Legislative committees are designed to be the workhorses of the lawmaking process. Committee votes are tangible evidence of how legislators are working to influence legislation and how well they are representing their constituents’ interests.

However, House leaders do not want committees and their members to be too influential in shaping legislation. In the time between when bills leave committee and when they hit the floor, they go behind closed doors where they are reviewed, rewritten, or deep-sixed by only a handful of legislative leaders. Since all of this occurs largely outside public view, with no hearings and no public record, it’s impossible to know who else weighs in. This is favorable terrain for savvy insiders, including lobbyists, who are adept at using connections and campaign contributions to get their voices heard.

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For legislative leaders with the power to reshape or kill legislation out of public view, having committee members stake out positions too openly and actively would be a constraint. This is the heart of House leadership’s objection to transparency of committee votes. A strong, visible committee vote of support would make it difficult to explain why a bill is later changed or even shelved. And if legislative leaders want a bill to die in committee, they are better served by the current practice of obscuring how — and even how many — members voted.

This also explains the absence in Massachusetts of other features of legislative committees common in most states and Congress: a requirement that votes be taken in public, open “mark-up” sessions to consider and vote on amendments, and detailed committee reports. These are all opportunities for committee members to participate in the development of legislation. The more public votes are, the greater the incentive for legislators to be active, in order to show their constituents they’re representing their interests.

From our experience in the Legislature, that’s what most legislators intend to do when they first get to Beacon Hill. But the current rules undermine the significance and visibility of committees and frustrate legislators’ ability to participate. And representatives face strong disincentives against rocking the boat and risking the relationships with leadership that are key to successful backroom dealing.

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The only answer to this is for voters to demand that their representatives put democracy ahead of blind loyalty to leadership. Opening up votes and other committee proceedings will make the Legislature more accountable and ensure all views are known at the lawmaking table.

Our state’s legislative body will follow Newton’s law and stay at rest until acted upon by an outside force. We call on the citizenry and the press of the Commonwealth to be that force.

Jonathan Hecht, a Democrat, served as state representative from Watertown from 2009 to 2021. Dan Winslow, a Republican, was chief legal counsel to Governor Mitt Romney and a Trial Court judge, and served as state representative from Norfolk from 2011 to 2013. They are members of the Steering Committee of the Coalition to Reform Our Legislature.