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On Beacon Hill, backroom infighting over committee rules spills into public, reveals simmering House-Senate tension

People exited the Senate chamber of the Massachusetts State House in August 2022.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

The secretive, deadline-averse Massachusetts Legislature usually keeps its bickering behind closed doors. But last week, infighting between two chairmen spilled into public view when one of Beacon Hill’s many joint House-Senate committees announced that it is temporarily splitting into two and working as separate panels.

Two versions of the Joint Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee convened separate hearings to hear public comment on the same set of bills.

“This is not only inefficient, it is nonsensical,” fumed state Representative Jeffrey N. Roy of Franklin, House chairman of the committee, as he opened the first of dueling hearings Thursday morning.

“I don’t relish playing on an uneven field,” said state Senator Michael J. Barrett of Lexington, Roy’s coleader, whose complaint with his House counterpart centers on the greater influence that House members wield on joint committees by virtue of holding more seats on each panel. His joint panel, for example, has 11 House members and six senators.

In one sense, the fight amounts to a small-scale procedural squabble over internal committee rules. But the bickering has injected a highly unusual level of drama into the typically drab legislative process, and pulls the curtain back on long-simmering tensions between the Legislature’s two chambers that threatens to further slow an already glacial policymaking process.


The inter-chamber power struggle has real implications for lawmakers, who are considering thousands of bills on all matter of issues important to Massachusetts residents. In the case of the telecommunication’s panel, the impasse threatens to slow the state’s response to the climate crisis.

In 2021 and 2022, what Beacon Hill denizens call the “TUE” committee produced pieces of landmark climate legislation that were later signed into law, resulting in sweeping changes to the way Massachusetts is responding to the climate crisis, from the adoption of a net-zero emissions goal by 2050 to broad reforms of the offshore wind industry.


The committee faces a slew of bills, which address a range of topics from weaning buildings off fossil fuels to further expanding offshore wind.

“As it is, we’ve struggled to put up climate bills early in the two years” of a legislative session, Barrett said. “Now the odds of our being able to act quickly have receded even more.”

The Legislature is fairly early on in its two-year calendar, which began in January.

A rarity in federal and other state governments, joint committees dominate Massachusetts Legislature, which has no fewer than 33 joint panels stocked with lawmakers from both chambers. These joint committees do much of the front-line policymaking work, hearing comment on bills introduced in either chamber and deciding whether to advance them.

This decades-old structure is dominated by House members, who hold more seats on every joint committee because there are more House lawmakers (currently 158) than Senate lawmakers (40). The imbalance has long been a source of internal strife.

For years, senators have argued that their bills don’t always get a fair shake by the joint committees because House members have a majority by default, allowing them, if they stick together, more influence to dictate which bills get action.

“They are joint in name only,” Barrett told the Globe. “We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.”

Roy said he first reached out to Barrett in March to begin the process of scheduling hearings on various bills before the committee. In April, Roy started booking conference rooms. Roy said Barrett did not want to conduct hearings until the two chairs could agree on the rules.


Another month went by, and Roy eventually sent a hearing notice to members of the committee earlier this month. Barrett responded with his own e-mail to members accusing his cochair of violating the Legislature’s joint rules that say chairs must agree to call hearings and urging members to oppose holding the hearing.

“That’s when the fireworks erupted,” Roy said.

Barrett said he did not approve the scheduling of the hearing, and accused Roy of acting peremptorily. In a lengthy and biting public statement he released last Monday, Barrett said he refuses to work alongside the House until Roy agrees to the rules. In the meantime, he convened his own senators-only hearing Friday.

“It’s almost as if the House is done with the delicate power-sharing that enables joint committees to work,” Barrett said, castigating his House counterpart for moving ahead with scheduling the hearing. “Either way, this is quite a turn in the road.”

Roy, meanwhile, said Barrett’s scheduling of a second hearing is “a waste of resources and it’s silly,” and will hold up important bills from being heard.

At the hearing by House members Thursday, several advocates and lobbyists shared testimony that they repeated on Friday for the senators’ hearing. One even booked a hotel room in Boston so he could come back the next day.

“To foolishly rely on some procedural quibble to prevent us from taking action is puzzling to me,” Roy said during Thursday’s hearing.


A Senate official said it’s also unclear what will happen to the bills heard last week. The rules require both chairs agree to a hearing, but the separate hearings were scheduled anyway. “We are in uncharted territory,” said the official.

The infighting has broader implications.

Dueling House and Senate committees can mean even-greater hurdles to members of the public trying to weigh in on legislation, including multiple hearings to attend, not to mention tracking competing schedules that change often, advocates say.

Massachusetts is in the minority of states nationwide that conduct the bulk of their legislative business in joint committees.

“When there really are conversations at the committee level where both House and Senate voices are being heard, that seems like a constructive way of doing things,” said Peter Enrich, a retired Northeastern University law professor who chairs a coalition that promotes legislative transparency. “If either side isn’t going to behave civilly, then it no longer works.”

The Senate does have tools to force bottled-up legislation onto the floor. Both chambers have a handful of separate committees, and senators can route bills through the Senate Ways and Means or Senate Rules committees.

Lawmakers in both chambers say the joint committee setup has its advantages. It’s more efficient, they argue, to allow for a single public hearing on proposed legislation rather than dueling hearings on the same subject.


Problems arise when the flow of legislation is disrupted by a power struggle. And in recent years, long-simmering Senate frustration with the imbalance has bubbled over.

In at least two caucus meetings in the last three months, Senate Democrats have discussed possible new rules that would give House lawmakers even more authority to move bills; some senators have suggested, in response, splitting the joint committees to preserve Senate power.

The power struggle is not new to Beacon Hill. In 2015, festering conflict between Senate president Stanley C. Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo came to a head when the Senate considered a “nuclear option” of withdrawing from some or all of the joint committees and setting up independent Senate panels.

“When you’re in this situation and you can’t have a conversation, everybody loses,” including the public, Rosenberg told the Globe.

So far, House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano and Senate president Karen E. Spilka have stayed out of the current fray.

A spokesperson for the House speaker referred a reporter to Roy.

In a statement, Spilka said she expects all chairs to follow the joint rules or rely on rules from the last session if they can’t agree, noting that the House-Senate panels have allowed lawmakers to effectively advance policy for years.

“As long as I have been a legislator, the joint committees have operated under the joint cooperation of the chairs on fundamental matters of order, such as scheduling hearings and votes,” she said.

Sabrina Shankman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross.