Levy misses the mark in critique of Rosenberg

Senate president faulted process on Beacon Hill, not its political dynamic

LAST WEDNESDAY, COMMONWEALTH recorded its weekly podcast interview, The Codcast. Michael Jonas and Bruce Mohl asked the questions. The guest was Senate President Stanley Rosenberg. The podcast was posted the next day, with a short summary of the 24-minute conversation featured in the Daily Download that directly quotes several of Rosenberg’s comments.

Later that day, CommonWealth posted a piece by Paul F. Levy. In his piece, Levy includes the gist of just two of the views that had been quoted in the summary write-up in the Download:

“Right now, it’s very clear that the governor and the House are aligned, and the Senate is the odd man out.”

And: “The system” for conducting legislative business “is not working.”

Levy suggests that Rosenberg apparently sees a cause-and-effect relationship between these views — that Rosenberg thinks that the system is broken only because he recognizes that the Senate has been the odd man out, and Rosenberg must therefore be dismayed by this status, and must therefore be resorting to blaming it on the system, rather than putting the blame where it rightly belongs, on Rosenberg himself, because Rosenberg has failed to – well, Levy doesn’t make clear what he thinks Rosenberg has failed to do, but it’s something.

With all due respect to Levy, he is wrong about all of this. The first of those two views is absolutely not the cause of the second of the two. Rather, the two views are independent of each other.

For one thing, Rosenberg’s critique of the system predates the beginning of his tenure as Senate president. For example, as he met with senators one-by-one during 2013 to seek their support for an office that he wouldn’t step into until January of 2015, one of the things that he did was set forth his critique of the existing system. By then, this critique had already been germinating for several years. It drew on Rosenberg’s first-hand experience as a long-serving member of the leadership team in the Senate.

Rosenberg thinks that the existing system for doing business in Legislature isn’t as transparent as it ought to be, the Legislature doesn’t engage the public as thoroughly as it should, and it isn’t productive enough.

If readers would like to acquaint themselves with a fuller version of his critique, they can listen to the podcast, where Rosenberg walks through its prime elements. Readers can then judge it for themselves.

As they listen, they might keep some things in mind: In a time of rapid change, the public’s demands on its elected representatives are rising. Increasingly, citizens expect legislatures to behave as the best of today’s customer-driven innovators behave: To be nimble, adaptable, resilient – and to engage them in two-way communication on multiple media platforms, the better to serve them. How should the Legislature respond?  Should it try to expand its capacity, so as to stay abreast of the rise in demands? Or should it expect the public to reduce its level of demand, so that it fits within the Legislature’s existing capacity?

For another, as Rosenberg makes clear in the podcast interview, he is not dismayed by the Senate’s status as odd-man-out: “I don’t mind the two-to-one.” Also, he explains why it doesn’t dismay him:

“Just because there is a two-to-one alignment didn’t mean that the Senate didn’t help set the agenda and didn’t help move the agenda and didn’t get major legislation done.”

The major measures that became law during this session only because the Senate led on them include the increase in the state’s version of the Earned Income Tax Credit, reform of the Public Records Law, pay equity legislation, and the transgender rights bill.

In its consideration of several of the major measures submitted by the governor – such as those on energy, opioids, and MBTA fares – the Senate made them more progressive than they would have been otherwise.

Levy might wonder how the Senate can be odd-man-out but still make such an impact. There are a number of reasons, but one of them deserves to be identified here. The Senate makes an impact because the level and intensity of public support for some of what it has been willing to propose has been sufficiently strong.

Massachusetts is the home of at least two political universes: a national universe and a state universe. They overlap, but are nevertheless distinct. The national universe – our choices for federal offices – has become consistently and famously blue. The state political universe is currently purple.

Like the governor and the House, the Senate lives in the purple universe. More than the governor and the House, however, the Senate has lately been proposing policies that attract support not only in the purple universe but also from the blue universe.

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This is because the proposals sync up with the national agenda of the Democratic Party. This isn’t true of all of the Senate’s proposals, of course, but it’s true of some of them. The blue support that these proposals can attract can give them an impetus that they otherwise might not enjoy and thus help to ensure their passage into law.

Ralph Whitehead recently retired as a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is an adviser to Senate President Rosenberg.