The Legislature is spending less time in session and taking far fewer roll calls than it did a generation ago
|Illustration by Eva Vazquez.|
dean williamson, a high school senior from Worcester, came to the State House in late February hoping to see a debate in the House of Representatives. Lawmakers opened the session with routine business: applauding students and teachers from a Nashoba Valley high school who prevented a school shooting, congratulating an Afghanistan veteran, and moving along home rule petitions.
The lone bill on the agenda was legislation to streamline community services for people looking for affordable housing. Three legislators spoke in support of the noncontroversial bill while their colleagues ignored them, chatting loudly in small groups or studying their electronic devices before taking a unanimous vote to approve the measure. Everything got wrapped up in an hour. Williamson was amazed. “It was more political show than getting things done,” he said.
“Political show” is an apt description, since legislative sessions are becoming more and more scripted. Legislators still vote on bills and there is the occasional debate, but both occur infrequently. A review of House and Senate records indicates the amount of time the General Court spends in session has dropped by roughly half since the mid-1980s. The number of roll calls has declined by about 70 percent in the House and 50 percent in the Senate over that same time period.
Lawmakers and political observers say the drop-off in legislative action is a reflection of a culture that has taken hold on Beacon Hill in recent decades that emphasizes efficiency over debate. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray have largely maintained that course, preferring wherever possible to work out differences behind closed doors and use public legislative sessions to execute those decisions.
Maurice Cunningham, a University of Massachusetts Boston political science professor, is concerned about the trend. “You want [lawmakers] to be doing their job legislating, getting things out of committee,” he says. “Some of those things aren’t really happening. You don’t want to sacrifice a vibrant democracy for efficiency.”
Tallying the tale
House Minority Leader Brad Jones says debate is becoming a rarity on Beacon Hill. “A couple of times, when we’ve had debates for two hours, people walk out of [the chamber] like they just [went to] a triple-overtime sporting event,” Jones say. “When debate breaks out, it’s newsworthy.”
To confirm just how unusual debate is anymore, CommonWealth analyzed House and Senate journals from three different two-year legislative sessions over a 25-year period. The amount of time spent in session and the number of roll calls taken were tallied. So were the number of formal legislative sessions, when substantive issues are discussed, and informal sessions, when routine, noncontroversial matters are handled. Informal sessions are often used to satisfy the requirement that the two branches meet every 72 hours, year-round. When information in the journals was unclear, coverage by State House News Service was consulted.
The records reveal a similar pattern in both branches. The amount of time spent deliberating and the number of roll call votes and formal sessions were all high during 1985-1986, plummeted during the 1999-2000 session, and then rebounded slightly in 2009-2010, but remained nowhere near the activity level of 25 years earlier. There has also been a general shift away from formal sessions to informal sessions, more so in the House than in the Senate.
The House spent 1,030 hours, or roughly 10 hours a week, in session during the 1985-1986 period, when George Keverian was speaker. Records indicate the House took 1,655 roll calls and met in formal session nearly 200 times and informal session 130 times.
The 1999-2000 session, with Tom Finneran presiding as speaker, was a dramatic change. The House met only four hours a week on average, held about 70 formal sessions, and took 607 roll calls.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo: maintaining
During the 2009-2010 session, with Robert DeLeo as speaker, the House’s time in session rose to an average of five hours a week but the number of roll calls continued to decline, falling to 513. The House held close to 75 formal sessions and 200 informal ones over the two-year period.
The Senate followed a similar pattern. During the 1985-1986 period, when William Bulger was Senate president, the chamber spent 650 hours, or about six hours a week, in session, took 851 roll calls, and held more than 100 formal and 160 informal sessions. The numbers dipped to just two hours a week in session, with about 50 formal sessions and 299 roll calls during 1999-2000, when Thomas Birmingham was president.
Under Therese Murray during the 2009-2010 session, the Senate met roughly three hours a week, took 412 roll calls, and held more than 80 formal and more than 200 informal sessions.
The Legislature is required to pass a state budget each year, and those deliberations illustrate how attitudes toward debate have changed over time. Under Keverian, House members would debate each amendment to the spending bill and debates would often stretch over several weeks and occasionally last through the night.
While Keverian was comfortable letting the rank and file have more freedom to operate, Finneran wanted more order and control. He moved to wrap up House budget debate in a week. The Ways and Means Committee consolidated amendments into bundles and negotiations about them took place in Room 348, a side room off the main House chamber, and not on the House floor. Lawmakers voted on the groups of amendments after the discussions in Room 348.
Rep Charles Murphy of Burlington, DeLeo’s choice as Ways and Means Committee chairman in 2009, moved the deliberations over budget amendments from Room 348 to a table in front of the rostrum on the House floor. Murphy acknowledges any debate over amendments could not be heard by the public, but he says his approach was an improvement over the old way. “You can’t argue the fact that it wasn’t in a back room anymore,” he says.
But after DeLeo ousted Murphy as budget chief last year for making noises about his interest in becoming speaker, the deliberations on amendments were moved back out of sight to Room 348. “We are in the mindset in this building currently… that the budget has to be done by Friday,” Murphy says. “Don’t debate anything, just move forward. It’s a bad trend.”
Senate budget debates are also scripted. Amendments are often bundled into groups and then voted on collectively. Sometimes amendments are voted on separately, but the decision about whether an amendment will pass or fail is decided ahead of time out of the public eye. Indeed, although any member can request that an amendment come to the floor for debate, lists are often kept of which amendments should pass and fail.
Jones says the legislative branches need to carve out a middle ground between the all-nighters of the mid-1980s and the streamlined sessions of today. “I’m not advocating that we go back to the Keverian model,” says Jones. “But it seems to me that we should do something more than where we have gotten to now.”
DeLeo and Murray both declined to comment for this article, and nearly a dozen other lawmakers in the House and Senate did not respond to requests for interviews.
The House speaker and the Senate president tightly control when and how their branches deliberate on legislation. Both leaders have the power to appoint committee chairmen and they have the power to remove them when they don’t toe the line on legislation and other issues.
Shannon Jenkins, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who is writing a book about state legislatures, says the speaker of the Massachusetts House is one of the most powerful in the country. “Some speakers are fine with allowing more debate, some speakers aren’t,” Jenkins says. “But because the speaker of the House is so powerful in Massachusetts, he can allow debate to the extent that he wants. In some other states, the speaker’s powers are much more limited.” Jenkins points out that in the late 1980s, Colorado voters approved a ballot initiative to curb the powers of their legislative leaders.
Susan Tucker, a Democrat from Andover who served 10 years in the House and a little over a decade in the Senate, says the power structure in the Legislature is such that most rank-and-file members prefer to go along to get along. “The Legislature is full of?caring and talented people,” she says. “However, there is way too much power concentrated in way too few hands, and the culture makes things very unpleasant for those who disagree.”
Last year, Rep. Harriett Stanley, a West Newbury Democrat who had voted against key bills supported by the House leadership, was unceremoniously reassigned to a basement office despite her request for an office closer to the House chamber due to a medical condition.
When House members voted on establishing casino gambling in 2011, dozens of lawmakers who had previously voted “no” under former speaker Salvatore DiMasi, a casino opponent, changed their minds and voted “yes” under DeLeo. In a moment of rare candor for a Bay State lawmaker, Rep. Ellen Story, an Amherst Democrat and member of DeLeo’s inner circle, told the State House News Service that there would be “consequences” for casino opponents, especially if they were in “his inner circle.”
Murphy says DeLeo is not a crack-the-whip type of guy. “It’s not in his nature to be autocratic, but he has allowed that paradigm to continue,” Murphy says.
Some lawmakers don’t mind the absence of debate and votes. It speeds up the legislative process and means there are fewer votes that can be used against them in the future when they run for re-election or seek higher office.
During the Senate debate on pension reform last year, Frederick Berry, a Peabody Democrat, worried about just that. “Let’s be honest…we know what we are going to do for perhaps the next 27 roll calls,” he said, according to a State House News Service summary. “Do we want to have all these on the record?”
Tucker says rank-and-file lawmakers quickly figure out how the system works and what legislative leaders want from them. “There are no rewards or incentives for spending more time in session, and?there are no penalties for doing business by phone or in small meetings instead of?in messy public debate,” she says.
Sen. Will Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat who moved from the House to the Senate earlier this year when he won a special election to fill a vacant seat, says the amount of time spent in session may be down in both branches, but he says the quality of debate is different in the 40-member Senate than it is in the 160-member House. “By definition, you only have a certain amount of air time,” he says. “If 40 people are sharing that air time, it’s a very different experience than if 160 people are sharing that airtime.”
Brownsberger also says lawmakers who complain about how the Legislature operates are really reacting to how their legislative priorities are being handled by the leadership. “I think it’s about particular issues,” he says. “Do you agree with the direction that’s being taken? If you don’t, and you are having difficulty in adjusting that direction, then it’s natural to become disappointed with the process. At the end of the day, the important questions are substantive questions more than procedural questions.”
Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, says the Legislature may be spending less time debating, but it’s still getting plenty done. During the 2009-2010 session, lawmakers passed major transportation initiatives and last year they approved municipal health care and pension reforms and set up a casino gambling framework. Widmer says legislators should be judged by the quality of the legislation they approve and not the quantity of their debate.
Still, Widmer says the process could be improved. “Given where we are now, I think it would be helpful to move a few paces back toward having more public debate and roll call votes,” he says.
Lawmakers occasionally push for more transparency in the legislative process on Beacon Hill, but the efforts generally have attracted little support and gone nowhere. The public has shown little interest as well.
Franklin resident Maxwell Morrongiello launched a group called Voters for Legislative Reform to push for more openness on Beacon Hill, but after making little headway he decided to abandon the effort and, as his website says, “focus my efforts on other issues in Massachusetts politics.”
Still, Morrongiello, who briefly interned for Rep. James Vallee, a Franklin Democrat, remains interested in the issue. “It bugs me that the principle of a democracy is that each representative should have equal say,” he says. “I feel like that’s not happening.”
In 2010, eight reform-minded Democratic House lawmakers sent an email to their colleagues, complaining about what they called the “larger problem in the Massachusetts House,” which was their way of describing the speaker’s dominance of the lawmaking process.“The most important power a Speaker has is setting the legislative agenda and conducting debate on the floor of the House,” the email said. “With the power of setting the agenda, a Speaker can decide if a bill gets to the floor for a vote and how it is debated. To a large degree, it has made the committee process irrelevant. Bills no longer reach the floor for debate and a vote because the committee believes they have merit. Bills get debated because a Speaker wants them to reach the floor for any number of reasons.
“This power inhibits debate and that’s a problem,” the lawmakers continued. “The predetermined outcome renders the floor debate meaningless. Members come here from their communities and different deliberative bodies like town meetings, school committees, boards of selectman, and city councils where they were accustomed to debating policy. They walk into the House chamber and are stunned to find out that debate is less essential to the outcome of the policy.”
The email caused a momentary stir but was quickly forgotten. Only two of the email’s signers are still in the Legislature, Brownsberger and Rep. Thomas Stanley, a Waltham Democrat. Brownsberger says he signed on not because of any concerns about the speaker’s power, but because he favored more openness about the internal finances of the House.
Yet other lawmakers refuse to give up and have taken up the crusade. In February, House Republicans organized the Rule 28 Coalition. The coalition sought support for a House rule that allows a majority of members to discharge bills from two committees where many pieces of legislation go to die—the Committee on Bills in Third Reading and the Ways and Means Committee. The goal was to encourage debates and votes on more legislation on the theory, as the coalition’s petition stated, that “debate enhances the democratic process and the stature of the House of Representatives, advances transparency and accountability in the legislative process, and empowers members to represent the interests of their constituents.”
The coalition hasn’t gained much support outside of the Republican Party. Only three Democrats (Murphy, Harriett Stanley, and John Rogers of Norwood) signed on, all of them dissidents who have had high-profile conflicts with DeLeo.But the news media has noticed: The Boston Globe, The MetroWest Daily News, the Taunton Daily Gazette, and the Sun-Chronicle all have run glowing editorials saluting the effort.
Jones, the Republican leader, says while legislative leaders have a good deal of power, they only have that power because the rank-and-file members give it to them. “If you—pardon my language—want to be part of the bitch-and-moan club, you’ve got to realize that some of what happens isn’t simply because somebody has power and you have no power yourselves,” he says.