Democratic supermajority not so super

Democratic supermajority not so super

Lawmakers from same party but not on same platform

IN THE YEAR FOLLOWING a presidential election, the Massachusetts Democratic Party updates its platform. A party platform can stand as a defiant statement of goals and ideals, and a roadmap for a legislative agenda and priorities. In today’s national political climate, such aspirational declarations are especially important as they offer voters something to fight for and something to vote for.

The platform released just last week contains new planks on paid family and medical leave, a $15 minimum wage, automatic voter registration, and the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences, bolstering what was already, by and large, a progressive document.

On Saturday, June 3, delegates from across the state will convene in Worcester to approve the platform, perhaps with a few amendments to make it stronger.

On Monday, June 5, if the past is any guide, our overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature will proceed to completely ignore it.

Democrats in Massachusetts have the third largest legislative supermajority in the country, trailing only Hawaii and Rhode Island. In reputation and number of seats, this Democratic Party powerhouse is – on paper – the perfect site for victories on progressive policies from the Massachusetts Legislature. And in the wake of renewed interest in state legislation as a site of Trump “resistance,” the Senate, where Democrats control 34 of 40 seats (85 percent), and the House, where Democrats control 126 of 160 House seats (78 percent), should be a progressive activist’s dream.

But a supermajority has value only to the extent that it stands for something, and to the extent that it is put to work. When one looks back at the party’s 2013 platform, the contrast between the aspirational document and actual policymaking can be quite stark, perhaps most so in the realm of health care.

For years, the Massachusetts Democratic Party platform has called for a single-payer health care system, one that would truly enshrine health care as a right. The momentum that exists behind single payer in other parts of the country does not seem to have yet reached Beacon Hill. Single-payer legislation recently advanced out of committee in the California Senate and was passed by the New York Assembly. On the national level, the majority of the House Democratic Caucus in Congress now supports single-payer, an all-time high.  But only about a third of Democrats in either branch of the Massachusetts Legislature have taken heed of their own party’s platform.

Or take another hot topic: immigration. The 2017 platform, like the 2013 one, calls for “the elimination of policies that make state and local police responsible for the enforcement of national immigration laws.” The Trust Act, which would have done just that, died in the Legislature without ever getting a vote in the past two sessions, and  House Speaker Robert DeLeo seems inclined to let the Safe Communities Act, its new, expanded incarnation, see the same fate.

Or take a look at public transit. The MBTA has a $7.3 billion – and growing – repair backlog and is the victim of years of disinvestment. The 2013 platform recognized the importance of increased investment in public transportation to economic prosperity, to equity, and to climate mitigation. But the Democrats in the Legislature have preferred to side with Gov. Charlie Baker’s misguided mantra of “reform, not revenue,” authorizing the creation of a control board that has mainly sought to cut and privatize basic services. The Fair Share amendment, broadly supported by Democrats, will help bring in some more money for public transit, but it’s only a start, and a late one at that.

Sometimes it isn’t just inaction; at times, the Legislature has done the exact opposite of what the platform calls for. The Massachusetts Democratic Party platform advocates for allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, a move backed by sound public safety logic. However, the Legislature voted to ban them from doing so at the end of last session.

It would be unfair to blame both branches equally when it comes to the inertia characteristic of Beacon Hill. Several of the new planks of the 2017 platform, such as paid family and medical leave and more aggressive enforcement of wage theft laws, did make it through the Senate last session, only to languish in the House. Platform mainstays like Election Day registration have passed the Senate in the past as well.

The divide between the two branches is reflected in the scorecard that Progressive Massachusetts releases each session, in which one can see a Senate where members are more willing to vote –   on record – for progressive policies and a House where voting in lockstep with the Speaker is the norm.

But better, of course, is not good enough. It is already May, and neither body has shown much urgency or initiative this session—except in raising their own pay.

With full Republican control in Washington, we are already seeing attacks on workers’ rights, voting rights, immigrant rights, reproductive rights, and vital social and environmental protections. It is up to states to serve as laboratories of democracy, to use Louis Brandeis’s apt phrase.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Cohn

Co-chair of issues committee, Progressive Massachusetts
Massachusetts Democrats could make our Commonwealth a beacon of progressive policymaking. If they aren’t interested, it’s up to activists and voters to make them.

Jonathan Cohn is an editor and activist in Boston and the co-chair of the issues committee at Progressive Massachusetts.

  • Fred Bilitnikoff

    Please explain how it is “sound public policy logic” to allow people here illegally to obtain driver’s licenses.

    • Lynette Johnson

      It’s NOT unless you live in a state of fantasy.