GOP rules challenge House lawmaking process
Winslow targets Democrats on ethics
NEW LEGISLATIVE SESSIONS on Beacon Hill normally begin the same way: House members vote through a rules package that gives legislative leadership broad powers to control the flow of bills through the body, and they bat aside attempts by the tiny Republican minority to check leadership’s powers.
Dan Winslow, the former state judge and longtime Republican operative who now occupies Scott Brown’s old House seat, holds no illusions that his caucus will be any more successful liberalizing House rules than they were two years ago, or the two years before that. The failure could prove useful, though. With the governor’s office up for grabs in two years, this week’s rules debate is likely to set the tone for two years of shining up a state GOP brand that was severely tarnished by last November’s presidential and Senate races. The House’s notoriously closed and prickly leadership style is as good a place as any to launch this effort.
House Republicans have filed dozens of proposed changes to the rules the House will take up this week. Most fall along the lines of opening up the legislative process to public scrutiny, and empowering committees and individual members. The party wants to post committee votes online, create a public system for tracking earmarks, strike time limits on debate, and allow committee members to elect their own chairs. “Let’s re-democratize the House,” Winslow argues. “If you empower every member of the House, we’ll still lose. But I’m not afraid to lose. Let’s mix it up.”
Winslow first tried overhauling the House’s ethics code two years ago, in the shadow of former House Speaker Sal DiMasi’s federal corruption trial. Two components of Winslow’s proposal — identification badges for lobbyists, and a so-called snitch rule modeled on the ethical reporting duties lawyers and jurists operate under — turned the entire ethics package toxic. House leadership sent the package to a study in the Rules Committee, where it was never heard from again. Now Winslow is resurrecting the ethics package, minus the identification badges and snitching, as part of the House’s rules debate.
“In the last two years, we’ve had a former House Speaker convicted, a former state rep convicted on campaign finance charges, which you really have to work to do, and had a rep resign after being convicted of stuffing the ballot box and subverting democracy,” Winslow argues. “Those are just three people, out of 160, but you can go back further. We’ve had the last three speakers convicted of significant crimes. Just as we’re shining a light on the process and culture of the state crime lab, so too should we shed some light on the House, which is fundamentally more important to the process of democracy.”
Winslow’s ethics overhaul pulls together threads of legislative ethics codes from 15 states. “There’s no innovation here, no new thought,” he says. “It’s not like we’re asking people to meet a higher standard than anyone has ever attained.” Instead, he argues, the code creates bright lines of conduct designed to protect the institution and its members.
Winslow’s ethics package hardens the House’s ban on nepotism, bars lobbyists from conducting business on the House floor and in the members’ lounge, and restates, in clearer language than the current rules employ, legislators’ obligation to act in the public trust. It also keeps the Legislature out of executive branch appropriations, which would have kept DiMasi out of his Cognos troubles. “There isn’t a predilection toward evil among people who get elected,” Winslow says. “People need guideposts, so good people know what they can and can’t do.”At the same time, Winslow is all but daring House Democrats to take a vote against ethics safeguards, against the backdrop of the DiMasi conviction and ongoing investigations into legislative-driven patronage at the Probation Department.
“It’ll be a missed opportunity to say something about the importance of ethics in our ranks,” Winslow says. “In the context of repeated convictions and state and federal grand jury investigations, when we had the chance to do something to address the ethical culture of the House, who stood up? We’re going to lose. They’ll vote it down just because they can, and at some point, the voters should care about that. After today, three-quarters of the people in Massachusetts will have a rep who voted against an ethics package, after three straight speakers were convicted of major crimes. At some point, if the voters care, there will be a record, and people will have to run on their record.”