House of Representatives Needs Reform

Marie St. Fleur

Marie St. Fleur was an up and coming legislator, vice chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and a member of the  Judiciary Committee and by all accounts someone who was going do well in the Legislature.

But she quickly found out how little power representatives have to get things done. They find out quickly – if you hope to have a future you have to vote with the House leadership.

First she tried to get out of the Legislature and run for Lieutenant Governor with Thomas Reilly in 2005.  Even though she’s popular in her district and could probably win re-election easily she’s decided against seeking re-election.

“Government is stuck right now…We can’t get it together to make a decision.”

In my conversations with legislators, several have said off the record that in the House a large number of representatives are “demoralized” because so little gets done. The result is that many legislators are deciding against seeking re-election.There is a large number of open seats this year due to a large number of retirements – 30 at last count, and there will probably be more. Many legislators are seeking higher office in places where they think they can be more effective. Many hope to move to State Senate, or Congress: Rep. Richard Ross, Rep. Jeff Perry, Rep. Ron Mariano, Rep. Bruce Ayers, Rep. Stephen Tobin, Rep. Lida Harkins,  and Rep. James Murphy. Rep. Joe Driscoll is running for DA.  Four -Evangelidis, Quinn, Donelan and Bosley are running for Sheriff. But many, like Rep. St. Fleur are simply dropping out.

Robert DeLeo

The problem is that the house has been for many years tightly controlled by the leadership. It has always been the case that the speaker holds a large amount of power. He largely gets to appoint legislators to committees. Each committee chairmanship nets a representative a pay raise from between $7,500 to $22,000, and extra staff members. In theory it gives the legislator a lot of power to refer bills out of committee or to kill them.

Because this power is in the hands of the House leadership legislators are under pressure to agree with the leadership, lest they lose a chairmanship and get hit with a large reduction in pay.

In the House today, either you vote with the speaker, or you run the risk of becoming a legislative untouchable – completely unable to push forward any of your own initiatives, and unable to help your own district.

When it comes time to appoint a new speaker, legislators line up behind one of the contenders. Each candidate for speaker circulates lists of supporters. Here is one of the lists, in this case DeLeo’s supporters.

It becomes a nerve wracking game that determines a legislator’s political future. If you stick with your candidate, and he loses, you are likely to lose something.  But if you switch to another candidate and your current candidate manages to pull off a victory, then you are really in trouble.

Lida Harkins had been a powerful representative. After the struggle for speakership between Rogers and DeLeo was over, Rep. Lida Harkins, who was caught on the wrong side of the battle, reached out to Deleo and was rebuffed:

“After the speaker’s race was over, there was the ability to heal the House, but he didn’t do that,’’ said Representative Lida Harkins, a Needham Democrat and leading DeLeo critic. “I asked a member of the speaker’s team, ‘When are you going to reach out to the other side?’ and the answer was, ‘We’re not going to; we don’t need you.’ ’’

The Phonenix also has an excellent analysis of the dynamics.

The result of this concentration of power in the hands of the speaker is that legislators are unable to be responsive to their constituents needs. If you vote with your constituents against the will of the speaker, you risk losing standing with the speaker. So you vote with the speaker, and the people’s issues are left unaddressed.

Another problem is that this concentration of power breeds corruption. Three speakers in a row now, DiMasi, Flaherty and Finneran have resigned in disgrace.

And of course, a lot of the legislative business is done behind closed doors. While almost the entirety of state and local government is bound by open meeting and public documents laws, the legislature has exempted itself. Many bills are decided by a small number of legislators without not only public input, but input by the majority of the legislature, and then forced through under penalty of displeasing his highness the Speaker.

A group of eight legislators calling themselves “Representatives for Reform” have banded together to rein in the power of the speaker, signing on to a public letter to their colleagues asking for reforms:

“When all power is put in the hands of one person, it corrupts that process and opens the door to abuse. A Speaker now determines everything in the Massachusetts House.”

In their letter they site a number of needed reforms:

  • Ensuring that home rule petitions can be discharged from the Rules Committee in a timely fashion
  • Making the state budget process in the House more transparent and making budget specifics accessible to all members
  • Providing a leadership election and committee appointment process that distributes more power to the members and less power to the speaker
  • Giving legislators greater control of the operating budgets for their offices
  • Eliminating or narrowing legislative exemptions to the open meeting law and public records law.

They have been appealing directly to voters on facebook and youtube.

The members of the group are:

  • Rep. Matthew C. Patrick,
  • Rep. Thomas M. Stanley,
  • Rep. Lida E. Harkins,
  • Rep. William G. Greene, Jr.,
  • Rep. Will N. Brownsberger,
  • Rep. Steven J. D’Amico,
  • Rep. Joseph R. Driscoll and
  • Rep. John F. Quinn

Of course their interests are varied.

A number of them, like Harkins, are simply legislators who were happy enough to cooperate with the current power structure when they were on the right side of it, but after having supported Rogers’ losing bid for speaker, now find themselves out of favor.

William Brownsberger

But others, like Rep. Brownsberger, seem to really be in it for reform. Brownsberger actually took the courageous step, and financial hit by resigning from his vice chairmanship, and wrote a letter to his constituents explaining why.

Whatever the reason, all of these legislators are really putting their future on the line by being the first to push for these reforms.

Our Legislature, especially the Massachusetts House of Representatives is ineffective and unresponsive to the people. One thing we can do is to support “Representatives for Reform.”. Another is to vote for candidates who promise to be independent.

Voters are in a mood to change things. It looks increasingly likely that there will be a large turnover in the Legislature this year.

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