Mr. Speaker, appoint a commission to study House

Right now the body is an embarrassment

What follows is written as an open letter to House Speaker Ron Mariano.

Based on news coverage of your decision to postpone the rules debate to July, it appears that you are concerned about the role of Act on Mass and other non-profit grassroots groups in so effectively galvanizing the voting public to demand more transparency and accountability from our elected representatives. (Stout, M., House reviews rules amid concern about ‘opaque’ advocates, Boston Globe, January 29, 2021, B4).

The report in the press suggests that you are more troubled by the grassroots organizations than by the dysfunction and opacity of the Legislature itself. Citizen constituents who have met with their representatives across the state have heard a common, seemingly rehearsed chorus that unknown, opaque groups like Act on Mass are pushing this effort, that the proposed reforms miss the mark by a wide measure, and that representatives feel “bullied” by tactics like — get ready — letters to the editor decrying the lack of accountability and transparency in the House.

Maybe it is your hope that grassroots support for greater transparency will simply evaporate by July. That, come summer, business in the State House will resume as before and no one will notice. That this debate will be won by overblown and unsupported speculation about how modest changes in the House’s rules will stifle deliberation and debate. Or that the public will wearily resign itself to the facts that the annual budget hasn’t been enacted on time in 10 years, that major policy changes are affected by outside sections of the budget, controlled by leadership and lobbyists and insiders with access, and that hundreds of bills, some addressing major issues with wide popular support, were left languishing at the end of 2020.

Give the voting public more credit. The well-known, inescapable fact is that the Massachusetts House largely operates in secrecy. Members vote in lockstep, as the leadership directs, on pain of punishment. Even well-meaning progressives and reform-minded candidates succumb to the enormous pressures to hew to the leadership line once elected. They justifiably fear losing power, status, influence, committee positions, and the lucrative stipends that go along with them.

The Massachusetts House is one of the least transparent in the nation. It is where legislation goes to die, even when a majority of members sign on as co-sponsors. Where it takes years and years to pass common-sense legislation for which there is overwhelming public support. Where major bills like the Roe Act are tacked on to the budget to avoid debate. And where a long-debated climate bill languished in conference committee for five months, only to be passed at the very last minute, thereby allowing the governor an easy veto.

It’s embarrassing. Massachusetts deserves much better.

If you are seriously troubled by “opaque” grassroots activists and if you are also committed to addressing the public’s valid concerns about the failure of the House to legislate effectively, efficiently, and transparently, we offer a practical suggestion: Appoint a blue-ribbon commission headed by a person of unquestionable stature in the state to study the problems and come up with recommendations for solving them.

That is the route then-Chief Justice Margaret Marshall followed in 2002, when she appointed the Visiting Committee on Management in the Courts, headed by the then-chancellor of Boston College, Father J. Donald Monan, and comprised of top leaders in the state. With the pro bono assistance of preeminent consulting firm McKinsey & Co., the Visiting Committee conducted a professional, independent review of the court system, statewide and top to bottom. The Visiting Committee’s detailed final report, delivered within six months of its appointment, identified the deficiencies in the court system that resulted in “managerial confusion,” poor morale, a lack of concern with customer service, a failure of leadership, and overall dysfunction. Eventually, with persistent pressure from grassroots and good-government lobbying groups, legislation was passed to improve the management of the court system.

Now that rules reform has been pushed out six months, we urge you to put that window of time to good use. Appoint an unbiased commission and let it hear from all stakeholders without fear of reprisal. Let it evaluate whether, as your constituents, grassroots non-profit activists, and many observers and participants believe, the legislative system is broken. Let’s hear what unbiased experts in public administration, management, and democratic institutions conclude needs to be changed and how they propose reform may be accomplished.

Meet the Author

Jeanne Kempthorne

Member, Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts
Meet the Author

John Lippitt

Member, Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts
An independent commission should consider these among other questions:

  • Whether transparency and accountability would be enhanced by making testimony and votes taken in legislative committees available to the public.
  • Whether terms limits should be established for the speaker of the House.
  • Whether the procedure for selecting the speaker and Senate president should be changed.
  • Whether committee membership and leadership should be determined by means other than appointment.
  • Whether the leadership stipend system should be changed or eliminated.
  • Whether the quality of legislation might be improved by increasing the pay and professionalism of staff and by the creation of a non-partisan central research bureau.
  • Whether the use of outside sections on the budget should be restricted.
  • Whether the discharge petition mechanism works appropriately and efficiently to bring bills to a vote.

Jeanne M. Kempthorne and John Lippitt are members of a team at Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts working on issues of legislative process and transparency.