A tiny band of dissident Republicans has held up all business in the Massachusetts House of Representatives since Aug. 29, using a procedural maneuver to protest what they say is an abuse of power by the Democratic majority.
Suddenly, Washington-style paralysis is seizing Beacon Hill, where Democrats are accustomed to ruling with impunity.
The battle revolves around an unlikely flash point: a small metal box, known as “the can,” that sits on the House speaker’s ornate wooden podium and contains the bills slated for approval.
Late last month, Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, concerned that too many lawmakers were riffling through the box and might be mixing up the bills, invoked a long-dormant rule that says only the Democratic and Republican leaders or their designee can peer into the box.
House Republican leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. did not object to the restriction. He and DeLeo point out that rank-and-file members who want to read the bills can still go to the clerk’s office before sessions or ask their party leaders for more information.
But five Republicans were livid, saying it is their right as legislators to look in the box and read the bills on the House floor. They have used a rule that allows any one member to shut down informal sessions, merely by voicing their opposition, to block all legislation in the House during the last four sessions.
The hard-line tactic echoes the struggle in Congress between establishment Republicans who are willing to cooperate with Democrats and the more rebellious wing of the GOP that is willing to block action on legislation to make a larger point. In Massachusetts, Republicans control just 30 of the 160 seats in the House.
During informal sessions, only routine bills are typically brought to the floor, so the blockade has angered Republicans and Democrats who expected their bills would sail though without opposition.
The protest has stopped bills that grant liquor licenses in Westborough, Natick, Concord, and Norfolk and that authorize the naming of a bridge in Fitchburg, as well as other, potentially more critical, measures.
“This seems to be an effort to bring gridlock to Massachusetts in a way that we have not experienced in the past, and I don’t see any positive benefit,” said Representative Alice Hanlon Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat and a member of DeLeo’s leadership team, who has had a beer-and-wine license for a supermarket in her district held up by the GOP protest. “We’re all very frustrated by what we see in Washington, and I’m disappointed to see the same kinds of tactics being used here.”
Representative Marc Lombardo, a second-term Billerica Republican, and Representative Jim Lyons, a second-term Republican from Andover, have helped lead the House blockade. They said in a joint statement that they are fulfilling a promise they made to the voters to make state government more transparent and accountable. They also argue that they need access to “the can” to prevent chicanery.
“We are trying to obstruct corruption; we are trying to obstruct the use of tax dollars for those who are breaking the rules; we are trying to protect the taxpayers from a system of abuse that has gone on for far too long,” Lombardo and Lyons said.
Representative Elizabeth Poirier, a North Attleborough Republican, said a bill she filed that would allow state employees to donate their paid sick time to a “deathly ill” constituent has been held up.
“She is financially close to ruin, and if she does not get the money, on top of her illness she is dealing with, she is close to foreclosure,” said Poirier, who is a member of the GOP leadership. “So it’s a dire situation for her, and it distresses me that she has to be put through this.”
Representative Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, said a resolution honoring Boston Marathon victims that he planned to present during the opening ceremony of Stoneham Town Day last Saturday has also been stopped.
“I was frustrated, very frustrated, about this, and disappointed,” said Lewis, who blamed a “small group of Tea Party Republicans who are blocking any legislation from moving forward.”
The metal can at the center of the fight has been part of House sessions for as long as any legislator can remember, a holdover from an era when legislative business was conducted on paper.
Last month, DeLeo became concerned that too many lawmakers were leafing through the box, and dusted off a rule that restricts access to the Democratic and GOP leadership only.
“With too many hands involved, it’s just going to be a very difficult process,” said Representative Paul Donato, a DeLeo deputy who often presides during informal sessions.
The speaker’s crackdown highlighted a fissure in the state GOP.
Jones, first elected in 1994, said past speakers banned all Republicans from peering in the box, so he was grateful that DeLeo allows him or his designee to read the bills in the box.
“I view it as a courtesy; it’s not a right,” he said, adding that he is happy to brief rank-and-file Republicans on the contents of the can.
“I watch the US Congress on TV, and I don’t see members running up to the rostrum,” Jones said. “If you want to know what’s going on in sessions, there is a myriad of ways of knowing it.”
But the dissident Republicans have vowed to continue to shut down informal sessions until they, too, are granted access to “the can.”
“We said we were committed to bring change to Beacon Hill and to make state government more transparent and accountable to the voters of the Commonwealth,” Lombardo and Lyons said in their statement. “We are keeping our word.”