Rules debate puts Beacon Hill on hold
Senate pushing for ability to control its own bills
THE MBTA ISN’T the only state entity that’s been operating with significant delays. The movement of legislation on Beacon Hill has been ground to a halt by a debate on internal rules that is fraying nerves no less than February’s frozen subway switches and iced-over third rails.
At issue is the process by which bills move from committees to the two legislative chambers, a structure that senators say has increasingly weakened their branch in a system that is supposed to be one of legislative co-equals. The two chambers have been trying to negotiate a resolution of their differences for several weeks, and tempers are starting to get short.
Almost all legislation on Beacon Hill, whether filed by a senator or a representative, is initially directed to joint committees made up of members of both branches. The joint committees hold hearings where the pros and cons of a bill are first aired. It takes a majority vote of the committee to then advance a bill to one of the two chambers. But since the 160-member House has nearly twice as many members on the 25 joint committees as the 40-member Senate (the usual makeup is 11 representatives and six senators), House members effectively control the movement of bills out of committees.
Senators have said delay tactics are increasingly being used to bottle up bills House leaders aren’t eager to see advance. The solution unanimously endorsed by the Senate in February was to change the rules governing joint committees so that House and Senate members could, with a majority vote of just the members of their branch, send any bill back to the branch where it originated. Though the rule would apply to both House and Senate members, it is senators, who are at a numerical disadvantage when the committees vote as a whole, who are eager to see the change.
Senate President Stan Rosenberg has taken to social media to explain the Senate’s view on the rules debate. He posted on his website a “Message on the Joint Rules,” coauthored with Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and Sen. Mark Montigny, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. They said the joint committee structure is an efficient way of holding hearings on bills. “This arrangement, however, is not living up to its full potential,” they wrote. Bills move slowly out the joint committees, and “many don’t come out of committee at all,” they wrote.
The problem began worsening, Rosenberg told the State House News in early March, when the Legislature moved 20 years ago to a system that allows bills to carryover from the first year of each two-year legislative session to the second without being refiled or having a new hearing. Before the change, bills were filed each January and had to have a hearing by April of that year. Under the new system, bills are filed in January of the first year of the two-year session, with rules mandating only that a hearing be held by March of the following year. The Legislature also modified its schedule to end its formal sessions on July 31 of that second year, which means bills might have only a four-month window during the two-year session in which they must be directed out of the committee where they were first heard.
Rosenberg and many senators also sent out last week via Twitter a graphic that shows how bills move — and often don’t move — through the Massachusetts Legislature. “This hurts efficiency and makes your government less effective,” the reads the text accompanying the graphic.
House leaders have not taken well the airing out so publicly of an issue that is one of the ultimate inside-baseball matters on Beacon Hill.
DeLeo’s office declined to comment. But House Majority Leader Ron Mariano, the lead House negotiator in the six-person conference committee of representatives and senators trying to resolve the rules standoff, sounded off earlier this week.
“I was extremely disappointed that the Senate president had gone on Twitter,” Mariano told reporters outside a State House hearing room on Tuesday after testifying on several revenue bills. He suggested that taking internal debates like this public could damage the working relationship between the two branches.
Behind the battle is an unfolding dynamic that has set the two branches on something of a collision course. The House has been tilting more toward the political center in recent years, while the Senate has been adding members eager to advance a full-throated liberal agenda on everything from taxation to criminal justice reform. But a good deal of the standoff goes beyond any ideological differences, as evidenced by the endorsement of the proposed rule change by the Senate’s six Republicans.
The two chambers are also being guided by legislative leaders at very different stages of their reign. While DeLeo has been firmly ensconced for six years — and recently got his members to abolish the eight-year term limit on his office that had been in place — Rosenberg just took the gavel as Senate president in January and is eager to make his mark. What’s more, across their long legislative careers, Rosenberg has been a more policy-focused pol than DeLeo, so he already comes to power with an interest in a more activist approach to the legislative process, an inclination shared by an increasing share of his issue-oriented Senate members.
The Senate proposal would do nothing to change the fact that any bill must win a favorable vote in both branches before going to the governor’s office. But allowing the Senate to control and pass its own bills means measures that now often seem lost in the legislative ether — sent to a “study,” often termed the “legislative graveyard,” or tied up through other tactics — would now be awaiting House action. Groups advocating particular bills could then direct their lobbying efforts — and public campaigns — at the branch where action on a piece of legislation is needed.
Rosenberg declined to comment on the ongoing rules debate, with his office citing the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations. Neither Tarr, the Republican minority leader, nor Montigny, who is the lead Senate negotiator in the conference committee, would comment.
If an agreement can’t be reached, the Senate could resort to the so-called “nuclear” option of ending the joint committee structure and establishing a separate Senate committee for each issue area.That would, in fact, put Massachusetts in the mainstream. Forty-six states operate with separate committees in each branch, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Just Maine and Connecticut share the joint committee structure that Massachusetts uses. And only Maine requires a vote of the entire committee to move a bill forward. Connecticut uses the system Massachusetts senators are proposing, with joint committees but with each branch able to control the flow of its own bills.
It’s not likely to be suggested by either branch, but one way to resolve the standoff would be to do away with our two legislative branches altogether and join Nebraska, the one state with a unicameral legislature.