On joint rules, House takes different approach than Senate
Advocacy group Act on Mass asks: ‘What are you hiding?’
THE MASSACHUSETTS HOUSE will vote Wednesday on joint rules that take a small step toward increased transparency regarding committee votes but do not go as far as the Senate does, or as some advocates would like.
The Senate on February 11 passed its version of the joint rules, which govern the majority of legislative committees having both House and Senate members, and the two versions will have to be reconciled before final votes are taken to adopt them.
The opaque nature of policy votes taken by individual committees has been a point of contention among those advocating for more government transparency. Policy committees consider bills and report them out with either a favorable or unfavorable recommendation, which decides whether the bill can advance to the full House or Senate. When CommonWealth called committee chairs in February 2020 to ask how individual members voted on a bill in their committee, most committees released the information, but others did not or only released partial information.
There is a roundabout way to get committee voting records. A bill’s webpage shows how the committee voted on a bill, whether a favorable or unfavorable recommendation. The House and Senate Journals, published in a pdf format online after sessions, lists who dissents from a committee recommendation. The House clerk will provide, on request, the names of any committee members who “reserved their rights” and did not vote. By comparing the list of committee members to the list of dissenters and those who abstained, someone can potentially figure out how each member voted.
The state Senate, in its version of the joint rules, adopted a rule that would post all yes and no votes by committee members on the legislative website. A Senate aide said votes to abstain would also be included.
House Speaker Ron Mariano’s approach would be to publish on the legislative website an aggregate tally of how many people voted for a bill, against a bill, abstained, and did not vote, along with the names of any dissenters from the majority recommendation. The site would not list the names of members who abstained, voted for the recommendation, or missed the vote.
The House proposal also removes some additional transparency provisions that were passed by the Senate. The Senate wanted to make all written testimony provided to a committee public upon request and published on the legislative website “whenever practicable.” The House does not include this. Until now, it had been up to the committee chairs’ discretion whether to make written testimony public. House Republicans plan to propose an amendment to make committee testimony public upon request.
The Senate wanted to require one week’s notice for public hearings. The House maintains the existing requirement for 72 hours’ notice.
The House rules also make changes to prevent multiple pieces of similar legislation being reported to separate branches. This would address a long-standing issue between the House and the Senate, which is that, sometimes, identical bills are sent from a committee to both bodies. That can result in either neither body working on it, or both bodies working on it and then fighting over whose version should move forward.
Mariano said in a statement that the changes are “minor but substantive.” “The House looks forward to continuing its work to make government more accessible as we deliver efficiently on legislation for our constituents,” he said.
Act on Mass criticized the House Rules Committee for striking the transparency proposals that passed the Senate. Erin Leahy, campaign manager at Act on Mass, said in a statement, “It is bizarre for the House to offer up convoluted solutions like aggregate vote totals. What are you hiding?”
The House also has its own rules governing House operations and representative-only committees. Mariano has said the House will not vote on its own rules until July, but will keep in place emergency rules adopted last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.As part of that discussion, Mariano has asked the House Rules Committee to establish best practices for how members engage with what he describes as unregistered lobbyists. According to Mariano’s office, House Rules Committee Chair Rep. William Galvin, a Canton Democrat, and Second Assistant Majority Leader Sarah Peake, a Provincetown Democrat, are actively working on that effort.
While Mariano has not clarified exactly what types of groups or individuals he is concerned about, Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin told CommonWealth that he has seen a rise in recent years in informal coalitions that advocate on behalf of a bill. He said the coalitions are not formed as legal entities and do not register as lobbyists. Peake has reached out to the secretary of state’s office.