And when we get behind closed doors …
Conference committees prefer to deliberate in private
Something highly unusual is happening up on Beacon Hill. A legislative conference committee, a group of six lawmakers tasked with finding common ground between the House and Senate on a piece of legislation, is meeting in public.
The conference committee working out in the open is trying to reconcile House and Senate bills updating the Public Records Law. Rep. Peter Kocot, the House chairman of the conference committee, said it seemed counterintuitive to hold closed-door meetings on a measure dealing with transparency, so the group decided to meet in public.
“Opening it up and having people realize what goes on in these conference committees shows there is nothing to worry about,” he said. “The process in most conference committees is similar. I would recommend it to other conference committees in the future.”
Don’t hold your breath. The presumption is that conference committee meetings should be open to the public since the members have to take a vote to close the doors. But it’s become standard practice on Beacon Hill for conference committees to deliberate in private. Many lawmakers take the position that they can’t even talk about what goes on in conference committees because that would somehow violate the unspoken rule of secrecy.
By rule, when each chamber passes a bill, if there’s even the slightest difference in wording, the House Speaker and Senate President each pick three members, two from their party and one from the minority party, to hammer out a compromise. The conference committee is charged with shaping a bill only from the two competing versions, but sometimes a new version can emerge that can change the measure considerably. Conference committee bills cannot be amended; they can only be voted up or down by the House and Senate.
The recent uproar over the MBTA’s decision to raise fares by an average of nearly 10 percent was preceded by an uproar over whether the T could even raise fares by that much. Many lawmakers were convinced that a 2013 law they had passed allowed for fare increases of 5 percent every two years. Indeed, that’s what the language of the Senate bill called for when it went into conference committee. But when the bill emerged from the conference committee, the word “annual” had been inserted in such a way to double the allowable increase.
Sen. Thomas McGee, the Senate chairman of the Transportation Committee, told CommonWealth earlier this year he was unaware how the word made it into the conference committee bill even though he participated in the proceedings.
“I’m not sure how that happened. And I can’t say I was aware of it happening at the time, however it did happen,” McGee said back in January. “If it was in there and I didn’t see it, well OK, but it wasn’t my intention to support the word annual.”
There are no records of conference committee meetings, so tracing how the final version of a bill is shaped is impossible. That may be why many lawmakers prefer to meet in private
Shannon Jenkins, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who has studied legislatures around the country, said lawmakers shouldn’t hide behind closed doors to do the people’s business.
“It’s sort of reflective of the problem of the lack of transparency,” she said. “What are they hiding? I don’t see any compelling reason to go into closed session. I don’t think that’s common practice in other states.”
“I think it completely sows distrust of government,” she said.
Even the conference committee working in public on the public records legislation isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Instead of trying to find common ground, the conference committee members have spent most of their time so far listening to the same interested parties who testified previously before the legislative committee that crafted the original bill. For example, the conference committee at its next meeting is expected to hear from the Massachusetts Municipal Association and town clerks who favor the House version of the bill; both groups testified previously before a packed hearing last year of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.Brewer, who as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee participated on four budget conference committees, said it’s best to deliberate in private. He said deliberating in public doesn’t show people “how the sausage is made” because the process of getting bills passed already informed everyone what the ingredients are.
“The public saw the sausage when it went through the House and saw the sausage when it went through the Senate,” he said. “That sausage has been duly vetted. All we were looking at was whether it was going to be mild or hot sausage.”