A New Year’s resolution for the Mass. House

Lawmakers should show, literally, that they stand for something

THERE WAS SOMETHING different about the start of this legislative session in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. It wasn’t the composition: Yes, Democrats did manage to flip two seats, but a slightly more overwhelming super-majority isn’t much of a sea change.

It was that Democrats were actually willing to stand up and demand a recorded vote on something.

On January 30, a handful of Democrats committed to demand recorded votes on a series of transparency amendments from Rep. Jon Hecht of Watertown. The content of the amendments would have been noncontroversial to the average voter—giving representatives more time to read bills and amendments, publishing the testimony that interest groups submit on bills, and posting the roll call votes taken behind closed doors in committees online. Simple, right?

Representatives spoke both in favor and against each amendment, and they took a roll call vote. Although the amendments unfortunately went down, the public process is how most people imagine that democracy works: Legislators debate vigorously and then go on record for what they believe in.

But that has become exceedingly rare.

New legislators, old legislators, and former staffers have all drawn attention to the authoritarian nature of the Massachusetts House. Nowhere is this clearer than in the lack of recorded votes.

When a bill is brought to the floor, representatives have a final opportunity to shape it by filing amendments. Representatives will file dozens, even hundreds, of amendments. And then, without fail, they will withdraw almost every single one, without discussion or debate, under pressure from House leadership. It’s a carefully choreographed performance to allow legislators the ability to feel like they are making change—while everything stays the same.

Of the 121 amendments filed on the House’s 2017 bill to rewrite the ballot initiative that legalized recreational marijuana, 74 (or 61 percent) were withdrawn. Only 1 of the remaining amendments received a recorded vote as written. Of the 212 amendments filed to the House’s 2017 criminal justice reform bill, 140 (or 66 percent) were withdrawn. Only 7 of the remaining amendments received a recorded vote as written.

And of the 174 amendments filed to the health care reform package the House passed last year, 144 (a whopping 83 percent) were withdrawn, again without discussion or debate.

To quote former Democratic representative Cory Atkins in her farewell speech, “Can you imagine absolutely no debate on an issue as complex as health care reform? During this nine-hour vote, only one member refused to pull her amendment and called for a debate.” That one member was Atkins.

Withdrawing amendments is disrespectful to the staffers who spend time drafting them, to the legislators who spend time evaluating them, to the advocates who spend time lobbying for them, but—above all—to members of the public, who deserve to know whether their legislators are actually fighting for them.

So here’s a New Year’s resolution for the Massachusetts House: start standing for what you believe in—literally.

Sixteen legislators need to stand and demand a recorded vote to happen. Yes, this is high compared to other states (in Texas and Colorado, for example, only one person has to stand for a vote for it to happen), but it shouldn’t be impossible. Indeed, withdrawn amendments can often have more than 16 co-sponsors.

Already, 12 representatives have signed the Voters Deserve to Know pledge committing to stand for roll call when a member asks for a recorded vote on any bill or amendment they have co-sponsored or which deals with substantively the same issue as a bill they have co-sponsored. More should join them.

Looking ahead, 2020 can shape up to be a big year for the Massachusetts House. Speaker Robert DeLeo has promised a debate early this year on raising more revenue to fix our crumbling roads and perpetually delayed public transit systems. The House might make another effort at an omnibus health care bill and take steps to address the affordable housing crisis and the climate crisis. In each case, representatives will have the opportunity to show their constituents whether or not they believe in the campaign promises they made and hold the values they profess. Let’s hope they take it, by filing meaningful amendments, refusing the pressure to withdraw them, and standing for recorded votes.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Cohn

Co-chair of issues committee, Progressive Massachusetts
Meet the Author

According to a well-known adage, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. If representatives don’t start standing for something, then they might fall to challengers who actually will.

Jonathan Cohn is chairman of the issues of committee of the advocacy group Progressive Massachusetts. Matthew Miller is co-founder of Act on Mass, a group promoting increased transparency in the Massachusetts Legislature.