Progressive group slams House for lack of professionalism, transparency
Authors of report include 3 ex-reps – Kaufman, Hecht, and Heroux
A GROUP OF PROGRESSIVE activists, including three former state representatives, released a 52-page report on Tuesday slamming state House leaders for perpetuating a structure that centralizes power in the speaker and limits the power of rank-and-file lawmakers.
The report says a lack of professionalism in the House – where some lawmakers have only a single staffer and staff receive little training – compounds the problem. If lawmakers lack expertise, the report says, that limits their ability to get things done and opens the door for special interests to hold more sway with leadership, since lobbyists can contribute expertise.
“As legislators’ individual roles in fashioning and furthering legislation are weakened, their dependence on and obedience to the leadership becomes more total,” the report says. “Those who seek power, status, and financial rewards are highly motivated to curry favor with leadership.”
The report is being released by Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts and was written by its legislative reform working group, which includes former Democratic representatives Jay Kaufman of Lexington, Jonathan Hecht of Watertown, and Paul Heroux of Attleboro, who are long-time critics of House leadership.
“This is not something progressive Democrats together with progressive allies are going to significantly achieve,” said Peter Enrich, chair of the Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts and a professor emeritus at Northeastern University School of Law. “If we’re going to make a difference here, it’s going to require a far broader coalition that reaches out across the political spectrum, to groups engaged with various issues.”
The report is the latest salvo in a long-running critique of the decades-old, top-down leadership style in the House. The conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance has been attacking legislative secrecy for nearly a decade, but over the last few years there has also been a groundswell of concern from liberal Democrats, despite Democratic control of the Legislature.
Kaufman, formerly a committee chair under House Speaker Robert DeLeo, emerged as a strong critic of DeLeo in 2019 once Kaufman declined to seek reelection. He criticized a lack of diversity in leadership and pressure by leaders to have representatives vote a certain way. During the 2021 House rules debate, the progressive coalition Act on Mass pushed for reforms, including making committee votes more easily accessible to the public. The Democratic Party platform passed in September included a call for more legislative transparency.
The House did adopt some changes this year, including more livestreaming of House sessions and some more transparency in publicizing committee votes. House Speaker Ron Mariano has said that the House has opened up some of its processes, and he remains open to additional rules changes. Rules governing joint House and Senate committees remain in conference as the committees work under temporary rules.
The push for transparency has also impacted advocacy organizations themselves. After Act on Mass pushed for reforms, Mariano ordered a review of state lobbying laws as they apply to coalitions, which are often unregistered and vaguely organized. After that review was released, Act on Mass registered as a lobbying organization and disclosed $40,000 paid in salaries in 2021 to three individuals to lobby on behalf of greater House transparency.
The report by the Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts is a structural critique of how the House operates in a way that centralizes power in the speaker. For example, the speaker has the power to dole out committee assignments, and he effectively sets members’ salaries since every leadership position carries a stipend, from $5,900 for committee vice chairs to $73,800 for the House Ways and Means Committee chair. The speaker also assigns staff and offices. Some representatives have only a single staff member, and those staffers tend to be underpaid. Since Massachusetts has no office dedicated to helping lawmakers with research or bill drafting, a member with only one staffer can struggle to even write bills.
The report found that Massachusetts is the only state legislature in the country not to have any legislative services agency to conduct research, draft bills, or provide fiscal analysis.
The report focuses on the House, not the Senate, since the Senate has more staff, more transparent rules, and less concentration of power.
Jeanne Kempthorne, the report’s lead author, said she hopes the report will be the basis for a coalition to unite around building a more effective Legislature. “Improving professionalism, for example, I think that would have a bunch of ripple effects,” she said.
And Enrich said he thinks there is some appetite for reform. “Voters feel disempowered. They know their legislators are disempowered and there’s a lot of frustration about that,” he said.
Ella McDonald of Act on Mass said progressive groups have come to understand the importance of transparency in areas like committee votes. “If we can’t see how our legislators are voting, we can’t hold them accountable to any of issue we care about, and it’s causing lack of action on nearly every progressive issue,” she said.Paul Craney of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, which was not involved with the report, said part of the problem is there are not many opportunities to weigh in on transparency other than during the legislative rules debate every two years. “I do think they need to feel political pressure, and it has to come from many voices, not just us,” Craney said.
An earlier version of this story failed to mention Paul Heroux.