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Mass. House criticized for lacking transparency amid debate on rules

Fog shrouded the Boston skyline as the State House dome stands out amidst the buildings on Beacon Hill as seen from Cambridge.
Fog shrouded the Boston skyline as the State House dome stands out amidst the buildings on Beacon Hill as seen from Cambridge.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts House of Representatives is preparing to delve into debate on Wednesday over its governing rules, with one notable caveat: It didn’t set a deadline for lawmakers to file amendments.

The change, while seemingly technical, means that any proposed changes to the chamber’s operations could emerge up until the final vote — a departure from past years that’s adding fuel to criticisms the chamber is sacrificing transparency at a time when it’s deciding the very parameters of its legislative process.

The House debate comes less than 48 hours after a committee filed an initial proposal for its rules package, a document with 102 pages and 100 separate sections, many of which are carried over from previous sessions. With no deadline, lawmakers can continue to file proposed changes through debate, compressing the time representatives have to review them.

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Among the handful of amendments that had been filed by Tuesday afternoon, two came from Representative Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat who’s seeking to make public any bill 72 hours before it’s taken up by the House and to allow lawmakers at least 30 minutes to review an amendment filed after a formal session is called.

Currently, copies of bills must be public only 24 hours in advance, and the 30-minute window applies only to consolidated amendments, bulging packages that include dozens of earmarks or amendments and are filed by the House’s budget committee.

That Hecht’s proposals, if in place, would alter the process being used to consider them was not lost on him.

“There is a certain irony,” he said. “The basic purpose of those rules is to create the conditions for us to do our jobs as effectively as possible and give the public a clear understanding.”

Representative William C. Galvin, chairman of the House Committee on Rules since 2015, said it’s the first time he could recall not including the deadline. But he defended the decision, saying it’s intended to give the House’s 25 new members more time to file amendments at a time when “there seems to be a little more emphasis” on the rules themselves.

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“I’ve been here 28 years,” the Canton Democrat said. “Usually the rules debates are pretty boring, because the rules are a complete package that I think are very transparent, and there are a lot of rules that protect the membership. I just think people are more involved [this session]. Usually in other years, people didn’t really pay attention to that part of legislating.”

The process, however, stands in stark contrast to how the House’s counterparts in the Senate have approached their own debate. The upper chamber released its initial rules package on Thursday, a week ahead of its scheduled debate, and set its amendment deadline for Monday, giving senators three days to consider them.

That difference is “really striking,” said Jonathan Cohn, chair of the issues committee for Progressive Massachusetts, an advocacy group that criticized the Legislature for a lack of transparency.

“I would love to see the House embrace reform. But I would be lying if I said I had any confidence that they would,” Cohn said.

Paul Craney, a spokesman for the right-leaning Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said the rules debate, while focused on internal mechanics, affects the public, too, because it provides an opportunity to open up the legislative process.

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“It appears the House is heading in the opposite direction,” he said.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo did not respond to questions Tuesday about the rules process.

The Legislature’s often opaque workings have come under scrutiny of late. A legislative panel drew headlines this month when it disbanded after two years without an agreement on whether to expand the public records law to cover the Legislature, governor’s office, and judiciary. Massachusetts is the only state in the nation where all three claim to be exempt from state public records rules.

Days earlier, a small contingent of House members had urged their fellow Democrats to change caucus rules so that future votes nominating a speaker would be conducted by secret ballot, a move its supporters sat could protect lawmakers from political reprisals should their preferred candidate not win. The motion failed in a voice vote.

The House last year also voted amid a contentious debate to amend its rules, update the chamber’s human resources policies, and create a new office to investigate accusations of misconduct against elected officials and staffers.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @mattpstout.