Reform advocates will press for changes in House rules

Campaign seeks to open legislative process

WHEN THE MASSACHUSETTS HOUSE sets its rules for the new two-year session, a group of advocates and lawmakers will renew their attempts to introduce more transparency into frequently opaque House processes.

The rules debate will be among the first tests of how newly elected House Speaker Ron Mariano will relate to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party – some of whose members have been hesitant about backing him.

So far, 16 state representatives have publicly backed a “transparency is power” campaign run by the progressive advocacy group Act on Mass. The representatives are generally progressive Democrats who have previously largely been locked out of House leadership positions. Several are House newcomers.

The campaign is demanding three changes to House rules. First, it wants all committee votes made public on the Legislature’s website. Today, Senate committee votes are posted on a bill’s webpage, but joint Senate and House committee votes may or may not be made public, depending on the committee chair, and they are released only upon request. (Correction: After publication, a House source pointed out that all dissenting votes from a committee vote are printed publicly in the House journal, which is posted online.)

Second, Act on Mass wants members and the public to have 72 hours between the time a bill is released from a committee and the time it is voted on, with a mechanism to suspend the rules with a roll call vote. Currently, House rules require 24 hours notice, and lawmakers often suspend the rule on a voice vote. (Senate rules already require 72 hours notice for any bills emerging from the Senate Ways and Means Committee.)

The third change would reduce the number of members needed to call for a roll call vote from 16 to eight. That would make it easier for a small group of members to request a recorded vote on a bill. (The Senate sets the threshold at the number of members in the minority party, which is currently three.)

Matt Miller, co-founder of Act on Mass, said the campaign builds off the group’s work the last two years “trying to shed light on how a lot of progressive policies are stymied in the State House.”

Two years ago, under Speaker Robert DeLeo, a vote to make all committee votes and written testimony public failed, 49-108. A vote to increase the amount of time lawmakers have to read a bill failed, 55-101. Both amendments were introduced by Rep. Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat who did not run for reelection this term.

This year, 23 progressive groups are backing the changes and lobbying lawmakers. The climate change group Sunrise Movement Boston is planning a small State House event with an online livestream this Sunday calling on lawmakers to adopt the transparency provisions. Act on Mass is hosting a virtual campaign update this Monday with Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven, a newly elected Somerville Democrat, followed by a week of action.

Sunrise Movement Boston organizer Jeanette Gronemeyer said the lack of transparency is larger than just a problem under DeLeo. “We think the current non-transparent processes won’t just go away with a new State House leader/politician in DeLeo’s place,” she said. “We’ll only accomplish a transparent Legislature with passing these demands and putting them into the State House rules.”

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The House on Thursday appointed a temporary rules committee, a logistical requirement for holding a formal rules debate. Mariano has not announced when the rules debate will happen, though some members expect it could be in late January or early February.

Mariano, asked about potential transparency proposals a day before he was elected speaker, said he is open to considering proposals, and any changes will be determined by the members. “Certainly, we’ll take a look at any transparency proposal that makes some sense,” Mariano said.