Recently the Massachusetts Senate proposed a change in the decades-old committee structure, one which has served Massachusetts well and positioned us as national leaders on numerous fronts. The proposal is ill-advised, disruptive, and would be detrimental to the public interest for several reasons.
The current system has resulted in excellent legislation and has put the brakes on bills that needed a closer look. We often talk about the need to get things done in state government. And while that is certainly true, it is equally important that we be deliberative and judicious when making new policy. The current committee structure has enabled passage of some unrivaled legislation on issues like gun safety, health care cost containment, substance abuse, and autism.
At the same time, some bills need a closer look. In fact, voters last fall rejected a legislative petition based on a bill that had failed to receive committee approval — the state’s beverage container deposit law. Clearly, the joint committee and the people were on the same page in terms of their concerns. If committee members, whether senators or representatives, can’t convince a majority of their colleagues to support their bill, they should take a hard look at the policy they are promoting rather than blaming the process.
Changing the joint committee system would cause unnecessary confusion and delay. To put the importance of this point in context: Each year I meet with officials from the major bond-rating agencies. They consistently mention the unusually smooth way the Massachusetts House, Senate, and administration work together to effectively and efficiently address fiscal and other policy issues. The Senate’s proposal threatens to upend this trend and has already taken time away from substantive matters. Moreover, if the Senate leadership chooses to employ the so-called “nuclear option,” and create its own Senate-only committees, the resulting muddled mess will only serve to make Beacon Hill look more like Capitol Hill in terms of gridlock and paralysis. It would also require the addition of staff and expense on the part of the Senate if they are going to duplicate staff functions already in place.
The current system results in better representation on Beacon Hill for the people of Massachusetts. Of our two legislative branches, the House is, by design, the most representative of the people and structured to be the most responsive. This is why, as is true in many states and in Congress, Senators cannot propose tax bills, and why the state constitution gives more power to House members when voting on constitutional amendments and ballot initiatives. In a similar way, joint legislative committees have more representatives than senators, to ensure that the people’s concerns are prioritized.
The current process provides fair representation of the people’s will and does nothing to harm the checks and balances of our bicameral legislature. Drastically changing it is not prudent, productive, or necessary. The Senate’s proposal is an impolitic and manufactured reaction to a non-existent problem and is a significant distraction at a time when the Commonwealth is at a critical juncture.
Robert A. DeLeo is speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.