A closer look at the sausage-making

Opaque conference committees tackle complicated issues

THE AVALANCHE of bills that came out of the Legislature during the nearly 17-hour session spanning Tuesday and Wednesday was a classic case in which lawmakers would argue that the ends justify the means.

 Beacon Hill legislators tackled a host of bills, close to 200 by some estimates. Most of them were minor in nature, but some of them were of great importance. The lawmakers won passage of the bills by suspending their own rules constantly and in some cases making up the rules as they went along.

 Two conference committee bills – one focused on economic development and the other on transportation bonds – are drawing applause from advocates and stakeholders. But the two bills also showcase what it sometimes takes to push major pieces of legislation across the finish line.

 Conference committees are one of the most opaque features of Beacon Hill. The committees are set up to resolve differences between House and Senate bills that can’t be reconciled through the standard legislative process. In these situations, the House appoints three members, two from the majority party and one from the minority party, and the Senate does the same. 

 The six lawmakers are charged with merging the two bills into one on behalf of the entire 200-person Legislature. The power is immense because once the conference committee releases its compromise bill, it can’t be amended. Lawmakers can only vote yes or no. 

 The Legislature’s rules say conference committee meetings are open to the public, but the six participants uniformly vote to close them. Conference committee members generally refuse to talk about what goes on behind closed doors, but the general impression is that the lead negotiators from the House and Senate make most of the decisions in consultation with leaders in their respective branches.

 House and Senate rules say no bill put out by a conference committee can be considered by the full Legislature until a day after it is released to the public, to give lawmakers a chance to review it. The standard practice is that a bill released by 8 p.m. can be taken up for a vote the following day any time after 1 p.m.

 The climate change conference bill followed the rules, emerging from its conference committee on Sunday and winning approval in the House and Senate on Monday. But the economic development and transportation bond conference bills were reported out of their conference committees in the wee hours of Wednesday morning and voted on hours later. The end result was that lawmakers voted on bills they didn’t know anything about. The vote on the transportation bill was 146-0 in the House and 39-1 in the Senate; on economic development, the vote was 143-4 in the House and 40-0 in the Senate.

 A conference committee is supposed to resolve differences between two bills, but what that means can vary. With a budget appropriation, it’s relatively straight-forward. The Senate might appropriate $600,000 for an agency and the House $200,000. The conference committee can choose the high number, the low number, or pick a different number.

 With the economic development legislation, the House passed a $459 million bill that included sports betting while the Senate approved a $455 million measure that did not include sports betting. The tab for the conference committee bill came to $626 million, and did not include sports betting because the lead Senate negotiator, Sen. Eric Lesser of Longmeadow, was wary of imposing a gambling initiative on his colleagues without them ever having voted on it.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

 With transportation, House and Senate lawmakers differed on whether the state had enough tax revenue to support an $18 billion bond bill. The House, when it passed its version of the bond bill pre-COVID in March, had separately passed a revenue measure hiking the gas tax, raising the minimum corporate tax, and boosting state fees on rides taken with Uber and Lyft. The Senate’s version, which passed during the pandemic in July, contained no new revenues.

 The transportation conference committee reached consensus by improvising, lowering the size of the bond bill to $16.5 billion and including new fees on Uber and Lyft riders even though those fees had not appeared in either bill in conference. Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the lead House negotiator, saw it as a creative solution. “You get to edit, modify, and get creative,” he said of a conference committee’s role.

 What that means, however, is that six lawmakers can effectively draft their own bill and make sweeping decisions on behalf of the entire Legislature, all out of the public eye.