Closed-door government

the machinery of government, whether it’s a regulatory proceeding or the route a bill takes to become law, is de­signed to give members of the public the chance to voice their opinions, to let them evaluate the positions taken by their elected officials, and to give elected officials the chance to reach consensus through the give-and-take of ideas. If everything is negotiated behind closed doors, what’s the point?

The proposed $17.5 billion merger of NStar and North­east Utilities is a good example. The state’s Depart­ment of Public Utilities launched a very public review of the merger after it was proposed in October 2010. There were public hearings, endless regulatory filings, and lots of discussion over the course of more than a year.

But unknown to the public there was a separate, parallel proceeding going on behind closed doors. Patrick administration officials began meeting with the utility officials in January 2011, dangling their support for the merger in return for an agreement from NStar to pursue projects advancing the administration’s green energy goals. Officials from Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office met with the utility officials separately on rate issues.

The private and the public deliberations chugged along separately for more than a year before the participants in the private negotiations announced a deal had been reached. Coakley’s part of the deal calls for fairly standard concessions: a $21 million ratepayer rebate and a four-year freeze in basic electricity distribution rates.

Patrick’s deal with the utilities requires NStar to purchase nearly a third of Cape Wind’s power output, to increase its energy efficiency savings, to build new solar projects, and to not push for changes in state law that would let utilities use large-scale hydropower to satisfy their renewable energy obligations.

Patrick played some brilliant power politics during the negotiations, using the leverage created by the utilities’ desire to consummate a merger to extract green energy concessions from the companies. But the private negotiations that yielded those concessions made a charade of the public process. Indeed, the Patrick administration never formally said during the public proceedings that it wanted NStar to buy Cape Wind’s power, so that issue was never fully debated until after it was presented as nearly a fait accompli to the DPU.

The legislative process on Beacon Hill is also moving more and more behind closed doors. The Big Three—the governor, the Senate president, and the House speaker—meet almost on a weekly basis to chart legislative action.

The meetings began under Gov. Michael Dukakis as an attempt by Massachusetts leaders to provide a united front to bond-rating agencies at a time when the state’s rating was near junk bond status. Over time, however, the meetings have morphed into a three-way game of legislative chess, where broad policy is set by the leaders of each branch and the public machinery of government—the committee hearings, the floor debates, and the roll calls—becomes less and less important.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

As Gabrielle Gurley reports in this issue (“Time out,”  p. 50), the result is a Legislature that meets, debates, and takes votes far less frequently than it did 25 years ago. Since the mid-1980s, the amount of time both the Senate and House spend in session has declined by roughly 50 percent. The number of roll calls has fallen about 70 percent in the House and about 50 percent in the Senate.

I’d be the first to admit that, while covering the State House for the Boston Globe back in the late 1980s, I wasn’t that fond of all of those endless debates, some of which would last through the night. The lengthy proceedings made it hard to meet deadlines and rarely seemed to change many votes. But those drawn-out debates and frequent roll calls reflected a democracy in action, even if it was slow, messy, and sometimes divisive. Now that the business of Beacon Hill is increasingly being done behind closed doors, the wheels of government turn more quickly and efficiently but our democracy is the worse for it.