House, Senate sniping at each other again
House chairs schedule votes on bills unilaterally
IF YOU THOUGHT the long-delayed budget agreement between the House and Senate meant their feuding was over, think again.
On Friday, the same day the budget compromise first emerged, the House chairs of four joint legislative committees unilaterally initiated votes on a handful of bills that had gone through the hearing process in each of their panels, and urged the members to approve the measures. By most accounts, the bills themselves were not controversial and some of them had even been sponsored by Senate members of the committees.
Nevertheless, the action of the House chairs was interpreted by Senate members as a violation of legislative rules because the decision to poll members of the various committees was taken unilaterally and not with the approval of the Senate chairs.
“The House again shows its flagrant disregard of both agreed upon rules of procedure and basic bicameral cooperation,” said Sen. Becca Rausch of Needham, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.
Rausch said she had no problem with the bills themselves, but she was irritated by the precedent Cahill attempted to set.
The joint rules of the House and Senate say “all joint standing committees shall schedule committee hearings and executive sessions upon agreement of the chairs.” Senators view executive sessions as being synonymous with committee votes, but it appears the House may not be on board with that interpretation. Cahill could not be reached for comment, but his office released a statement noting the three bills were reported favorably out of the committee by House members, while Senate members did not participate.
Because the 160-member House is so much larger than the 40-member Senate, every joint committee is dominated by House members. Senators say they rely on rules giving their chairs an equal say on hearings and votes to give them some leverage in negotiations over which bills move forward. House members say the rules unfairly give Senate chairs the power to bottle bills up in committee.
House leaders at the start of this session pushed for rules changes moving the individual joint committees toward majority rule, but that effort didn’t get far. In the Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee, where the debate got heated between the two chairs – Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington and Rep. Jeffrey Roy of Franklin — the panel has split in two, with House and Senate members holding hearings separately.
In mid-June, House Speaker Ron Mariano downplayed the dispute, suggesting it was confined to the one committee, but this most recent action suggests the House is invested in changing the rules and the effort is being coordinated by House leaders.
House Majority Leader Michael Moran said in a statement that the House chairs of four committees – Environment and Natural Resources; Agriculture; Advanced Information Technology, the Internet and Cybersecurity; and Cannabis Policy – polled their members on Friday to get legislation moving.“The legislation that was polled included both House and Senate bills, reported to both chambers, that received public hearings in the spring and early summer, and have since been awaiting legislative action,” he said. “In accordance with our understanding of the rules, the House acted to move these bills through the legislative process as we continue to pursue a productive legislative session.”
Rausch urged her Senate colleagues not to participate in the voting. Sources said two senators serving on the four committees initially voted for the bills before backtracking and withdrawing their votes. The sources said Republican Sen. Ryan Fattman of Sutton cast his vote for a bill he sponsored that was in the Cannabis Policy Committee.