At the start of each legislative session, Mass. State House lawmakers write their own rules for how bills will be introduced, studied, debated, and voted on over the next two years.
These rules will dictate, among other things, how much the public will know about the progress and fate of even the most heavily supported bills as they travel through committees and ultimately proceed — or not — to the floor for a vote.
There are essentially three sets of rules governing the process: one set is used by the state Senate, the second by the House of Representatives, and the third for joint committees of the two legislative bodies.
A grassroots movement has launched an intensive campaign that focuses on the House rules, and a State House-focused reform organization called Act on Mass has emerged as a potentially potent force for it. The group is advocating for changes that will bring more constituent voices into lawmaking, according to Ryan Daulton, its campaign manager.
The Senate has already made some changes to its rules that provide the public with information via its website on how its membership votes.
“The House lags pretty far behind the Senate in terms of transparency,” said Miriam Siegel of Natick, a member of Act on Mass. “We want to focus on the House so we can get to that baseline level of transparency.”
All votes of governmental bodies in Massachusetts are required to be public by the state’s Open Meeting Law — with one glaring exception: the state legislature.
Transparency is something citizens want, according to a nonbinding ballot question in 16 districts last November. About 90 percent of the voters in those districts supported making all votes of the state legislature’s committees publicly available on the State House website, including how each lawmaker voted.
With the recent kickoff of the 192nd legislative session, lawmakers will once again take up the matter of setting the rules sometime in the next month. Act on Mass has been working with constituents across the state to set meetings with their legislators to push for a commitment to more transparency.
The organization is advocating three amendments to the rules: to require all votes and testimony that takes place in committee to be publicly disclosed; to allow 72 hours between a bill’s release and a final vote of the House instead of the current 24 hours; and to lower the number of representatives required to prompt a recorded roll call vote on a bill from 16 to eight.
A Closed Zoom
Outer Cape residents have a Zoom meeting set with Sarah Peake, the Provincetown Democrat representing the Fourth Barnstable District, at 3 p.m. today (Jan. 21) to promote the amendments. Laurie Veninger of Truro, one of the leaders of Indivisible Outer Cape, expects a dozen people to attend. “Our ask to Sarah will be to support these three common-sense rules,” said Veninger.
Siegel hopes the meeting with Peake can “at least start a conversation about the amendments. Hopefully, we earn her support by the time the rules vote does happen.”
Peake was a member of the House leadership team under Speaker Robert DeLeo, who retired after the last session of the legislature. “It’s definitely valuable to have the support of people who are a bit closer up the leadership, because the leadership in the State House are the people who are most opposed to our transparency amendments,” Siegel said. “We have broad support from Republican representatives, so it’s really the Democratic leadership that might feel the most vulnerable or most fearful of having these transparency amendments.
“The leadership tries to keep a tight grasp on the legislature,” Siegel continued, “and that requires some secrecy to not reveal everything that’s going on in terms of insider politics.”
Peake declined to answer questions for this article.
Reporters are not invited to Thursday’s Zoom discussion. According to Siegel, “Legislators are concerned with receiving negative attention and increased public pressure. Many reps see public pressure as a form of hostility rather than accountability.”
Most of the work done on bills takes place in committees, and many bills languish there and never get to the floor for a vote.
The Safe Communities Act is a good example of a bill that enjoyed tremendous support but failed to make it to a vote. The bill has now gone eight years without action. In the latest legislative session, it received a positive report out of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, but remained stalled in the Committee for Ways and Means as the legislative session ended.
“It died in committee, and we couldn’t see how our own representatives stood,” Siegel said. “It was upsetting, because that bill had broad support across the state.”
Veninger expressed some surprise at the lack of transparency on Beacon Hill. “I’m told we’re one of the states that takes the longest for a bill to get through,” she said. “It can take years. I think a lot of the public doesn’t know this about the legislature in Massachusetts.”
The Mass. League of Women Voters supported several proposed changes to improve transparency at the start of the 2019 legislative session. Judy Zaunbrecher, the league’s co-president, said they are still waiting to see what rules changes will be proposed this year.