When Roger Wolcott, the 39th governor of Massachusetts, delivered his inaugural address in 1897, he urged state legislators to stop spending so much time on Beacon Hill, trying to justify longer and longer sessions by introducing more and more bills.
“The volume of legislation is a poor criterion of its necessity and wisdom,” he told the senators and representatives assembled before him. “It is difficult to believe that five months of legislative session and 700 printed pages of acts and resolves are annually necessary. A shorter session and [fewer bills] would not be unwelcome to our people.”
The governor’s words had no effect. The Massachusetts Legislature stayed in session that year for 158 days; lawmakers, who had convened on January 6, didn’t adjourn until June 12. In 1900, Wolcott’s last year in office, the Legislature hung around until July 17. The new century brought more session creep. By the 1950s, it was routine for the Senate and House to stay in session until September or October. Eventually Massachusetts ended up with the General Court it has today — the one that, like a horror-movie mummy, refuses to die. The Legislature is in formal session for 18 months out of every 24, but remains in “informal” session even after it has supposedly called it quits.
You thought a five-month Legislature was an “unwelcome” nuisance in 1897, Governor Wolcott? You should see what Massachusetts is cursed with now.
Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states in which the Legislature effectively never adjourns. That handful just happens to include some of the worst-governed, highest-taxed, biggest-spending, and/or most heavily-regulated states in the nation — among them, California, New Jersey, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. The Legislature’s year-round sessions also come with extravagant salaries. Massachusetts lawmakers are paid more than their counterparts in 44 states — their base salary is $62,548, but they also receive tens of thousands of additional dollars in the form of expense allotments and “leadership” bonuses. For a bunch of characters who don’t actually construct, produce, improve, grow, or manage anything, it’s an awfully sweet deal.
In most of America, this would never be tolerated. Legislators in normal states convene for just a few weeks or months each year, hammer out a budget, pass whatever legislation is needful, and go home. In some truly enlightened states, the legislature is in session for only a few weeks every other year. I remember a note I received in November 1995 from the late Barbara Anderson, who for years was the Bay State’s most tenacious taxpayer advocate. She wrote from Nevada, marveling at something she had seen during a visit to the state Capitol in Carson City. In the empty House chamber, a notice was posted at the Speaker’s rostrum: “Next session, January 1997.”
Yet Massachusetts persists in the delusion that legislating is a full-time job, requiring “professional” lawmakers with staffs, offices, and full-time salaries. That superstition is continually being contradicted by the Legislature’s subpar performance.
Last month, for example, the Senate and House approved a $42 billion budget for fiscal year 2019. The most expensive spending plan in the state’s history was rubber-stamped by lawmakers less than seven hours after it was released from committee, which says a lot about the (lack of) diligence with which the Bay State’s well-paid professional legislators perform their job. It says even more that the budget was almost three weeks overdue — fiscal year 2018 ended on June 30. Every other state had its 2019 budget finalized before Massachusetts did; many finished the job months ago.
In the real world, people who blow off crucial deadlines pay a price. (If you doubt it, try sending in your taxes or making your mortgage payment three weeks late.) But in the Massachusetts General Court, the legislative show that never closes, what’s another missed deadline? Senators and representatives don’t have to worry about their pay being docked if they do a lousy job. Most of them don’t even have to worry about being challenged for reelection.
There are better options.
New Hampshire has always rejected the idea that legislating must be left to professionals. It pays its lawmakers just $100 per year — that’s not a typo — and its 400-member House of Representatives — that’s not a typo either — encourages participation in government by a remarkably diverse array of citizens, few of whom regard politics as a career. Unlike Massachusetts, where many legislative candidates are attracted by the prospect of status, influence, money, and a steppingstone to higher office, New Hampshire’s statehouse tends to attracts true citizen-lawmakers — independent, civic-minded volunteers who choose to serve with no ulterior motive but good governance.
New Hampshire is a tiny state, but Massachusetts can learn from big states, too.
“Texas’s part-time legislature . . . has been a key factor in its economic success,” concluded reporter Jon Cassidy in a 2016 essay for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Research shows that states without year-round legislatures are more resistant to government spending, and the Texas experience bears that out. With a political culture notorious for cronyism, Texas has never been a model of saintliness. Yet the government’s ability to do damage is checked by a system that deliberately keeps lawmakers from having too much power in the first place, and thereby leaves more room for civil society to flourish. The Texas constitution limits legislators’ pay to just $7,200 a year (plus expenses) and limits their sessions to just 140 days per biennium. Can a state succeed with so trammeled a legislature? If the booming Texas economy and the steady surge of newcomers are any indication, the answer is an unqualified yes.
Massachusetts has many blessings, but its full-time Senate and House of Representatives are decidedly not among them. A year-round Legislature filled with underperforming careerists has done Massachusetts no good. Beacon Hill would be far healthier if it took less inspiration from New Jersey and more from New Hampshire. It might even get its budget done on time.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.