Beacon Hill showdown looming
Without House agreement on rules, Rosenberg says Senate will act on its own
AN INCREASINGLY ACRIMONIOUS battle between the House and Senate over legislative rules is heading toward a breaking point, as Senate President Stan Rosenberg said on Tuesday afternoon that the Senate is prepared to act unilaterally on Wednesday afternoon to solve the impasse if a conference committee of House and Senate members has not reached an agreement by then.
“We’re going to move to another step tomorrow if we don’t have a conference report to vote on, and we’ll see what happens after that,” Rosenberg told reporters outside his office.
The standoff has to do with how bills make their way through the committee structure on Beacon Hill. Legislation is currently brought before joint committees made up House and Senate members. But with a nearly 2-to-1 ratio of representatives to senators on most committees, House members effectively determine whether bills make it out of committee. Senators say it has become increasingly difficult in recent years to have their bills move out of committees.
“Senators should have control of their bills so that we can serve our constituency,” said Rosenberg. “Both representatives and senators are elected to do the exact same job. We can’t do our job the way we’re supposed to if we can’t get our legislation back.”
Rosenberg’s remarks came following publication in Tuesday’s Boston Globe of an op-ed by House Speaker Robert DeLeo that upped the ante in the weeks-long stalemate. DeLeo called the Senate proposal “ill-advised” and “disruptive.” He said the proposal was an “impolitic and manufactured reaction to a non-existent problem and is a significant distraction at a time when the Commonwealth is at a critical juncture.”
DeLeo said the joint committee structure sometimes puts an important brake on bills that “need a closer look.” He cited as an example the failure of a joint committee to approve a bill that would have expanded the reach of the state’s bottle deposit law. “Clearly, the joint committee and the people were on the same page in terms of their concerns,” he wrote, referring to voters’ rejection of a question advocates put on the November 2014 ballot after the Legislature balked at moving the legislation.
But most observers say the bill was not held up because of judicious consideration by House members on the committee, but because DeLeo himself sent signals it should not advance by saying that the bottle bill amounted to a tax.
Rosenberg said the joint committees worked well for years. He pegged the start of the problem to adoption of new rules 20 years ago that allowed bills to be carried over from one year to the next during the Legislature’s two-year terms, with a hearing sometimes delayed as long as 15 months from the time a bill is initially filed in January of the first year of the two-year cycle.
Senate leaders have signaled that if no resolution can be reached in the six-member conference committee now reviewing the joint rules, they are prepared to exercise the so-called “nuclear option” of forming separate Senate committees. Senators are scheduled to caucus on Wednesday, followed by a formal session in the afternoon where Rosenberg says they would be prepared to take action to end the impasse.
“Forty-six states have separate committees. They seem to get along fine,” he said. “We would love to resolve this in a way that could allow the joint committees to continue, but we want to be fair and reasonable, and we don’t want to be in a position of not being able to do our jobs.”