Fixing Beacon Hill’s House-Senate breakdown
It’s no secret on Beacon Hill that House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg view each other warily, but the House and Senate must work together more productively next year than they did in this one. And with two simple, informal commitments, the legislative leaders could lay the groundwork for better results.
Certainly the first year of the 2015-2016 legislative session ended disappointingly, with important matters left in limbo. In that category fall an updating of the state's weak and antique public-records law and a reworking of solar-energy legislation. Legislation to address the state's opioid crisis languished. And once again, a transgender rights bill went nowhere.
Much of the tension is rooted in differences in ideology and style between the legislative leaders.
DeLeo, a moderate, is a more resolute reformer on issues that require defying Democratic constituency groups, like granting the MBTA a temporary reprieve from the Pacheco antiprivatization law. That said, he sometimes spends long weeks trying to broker consensus, particularly when business concerns are involved. Under DeLeo, the House remains highly hierarchical, with the content and pace of legislation closely controlled. Having held the speaker's job since 2009, DeLeo clearly wants to be seen as more pivotal than Rosenberg, who took the top Senate spot only this year.
Rosenberg, a liberal, is less prone to ruffle Democratic-constituency feathers, but more inclined to creative progressive action. Having served decades in a top-down Senate, he hopes to disperse more authority down to the individual senators. He also wants to enhance the Senate's institutional role, which has led him to bandy about the notion of replacing the legislature's joint committee structure with separate panels for both chambers.
Rosenberg's effort to empower his membership has proved disconcerting to House leadership, which is used to dealing with a Senate president who spoke more authoritatively for the Senate. Indeed, DeLeo's camp sometimes seems to take those efforts as an affront to his own top-down leadership style. The House also feels the Senate is prone to deliberation at the expense of action. And DeLeo and his team are also deeply opposed to changing the committee structure, which favors the House because that body has more members on the joint panels.
The Senate, contrariwise, thinks the House exploits its numerical advantage on the joint committees to bottle up Senate initiatives, and tries to gain disproportionate influence over legislation by waiting until the 11th hour to send bills its way.
The Senate's critique seems more apt, at least in terms of this year's failures: The House dropped several important and complex measures in the Senate's lap at the last minute, leaving that body little time to deliberate in a considered way.
The only reason this year's underwhelming session can't be ruled a dismal failure is that legislation carries over into 2016, retaining its current place in the process. But that won't be true when next year's formal session comes to a close in July. Then, matters that haven't cleared the Legislature will die outright.
One way to avoid an end-of-session logjam is for the committees to act on legislation in a timely manner. In general, the joint rules require committee action by mid-March, though that deadline is often extended. It should be taken much more seriously, with a high bar for extensions.
Another would be for the two leaders to commit to a series of deadlines by which their chambers would debate and vote on important legislation.
The Senate favors a strict adherence to the committee-action deadline, with the proviso that legislation should return to its body of origin, so members there can decide whether or how to move forward. Asked about the notion of informal deadlines, Rosenberg issued this statement: "We support setting time frames for completing large pieces of legislation to allow for planning and efficiency. We believe that careful and transparent review of legislation in a timely fashion is critical to a smooth legislative process."
Not the speaker, however. Seth Gitell, his spokesman, responded with a statement that ignored possible procedural improvements and instead pointed to the legislative record DeLeo had compiled with Therese Murray, Rosenberg's predecessor as Senate president.
"Unique among leadership on Beacon Hill, Speaker DeLeo has an almost-seven-year track record that proves he can get things done," that statement said. "He hopes this will serve as an example of what can be achieved in the months ahead."
Sadly, that sounds more like a change-averse Beacon Hill insider who is intent on protecting House prerogatives than a magnanimous legislative leader willing to make things work with a new legislative partner.
That's unfortunate. The state can't afford another legislative year like the one just past — and that means the House must be more accommodating to the Senate in the year ahead.