DeLeo drops proposed rule making roll calls more difficult
Pushback from Republicans, progressive Democrats caused shift
HOUSE SPEAKER ROBERT DELEO announced Tuesday evening that the new rules being considered by the chamber to allow for remote participation during the coronavirus pandemic will be altered to remove a provision that would have made it harder to ask for a roll call vote.
DeLeo issued a statement saying he had “numerous fruitful discussions” throughout the day with members who objected to the change, which required a higher number of votes to trigger a roll call. He said the change had been included to speed things along, so staffers would have to be physically in the chamber less time. But after those discussions DeLeo said the decision was made to retain the current rule on roll calls. “We now believe that the procedures we have for roll calls will help us make them more efficient,” he said.
The speaker’s announcement came amid a rising tide of criticism from progressive Democrats and Republicans alike. With the House meeting in informal sessions, where an objection by a single legislator can shut down debate, Republicans threatened to use their power to block any legislative action unless the provision was removed. Activists also seized on the proposal to claim Democrats were trying to snuff out debate.
“This roll call change doesn’t seem to be about anything about streamlining or having a remote session,” said Matt Miller, co-founder of Act on Mass, a progressive government transparency group. “It will reduce the ability for voters to know how representatives are voting on controversial stuff.”
The new proposed emergency House rules were released Monday evening. They are meant to provide a way for the House to meet in formal sessions and hold votes remotely while in the midst of a pandemic where large gatherings are unsafe. Until now, the House and Senate have been meeting only in informal sessions with a handful of lawmakers present.
While many of the rules codify existing procedures while allowing for remote participation, at least one rule would have been a major change. Until now, any lawmaker could call for a roll call vote on a bill or amendment if they got support from 15 other members. The new rules raise the threshold from 16 members – 10 percent of the House – to 40 members, or one-quarter of the elected House. (The threshold does not apply to some spending bills, which constitutionally require a roll call vote.)
Often, requests for roll calls in the House are made by leadership on major bills that members want a chance to register their support on. Amendments without enough support tend to be withdrawn without a vote. But sometimes, roll calls are used as a means to protest a decision by leadership not to support a provision or to require lawmakers to go on record. Sometimes, the Republican caucus will request a roll call knowing that the vote will be along party lines. Occasionally, other blocs, like the progressive caucus, will request a roll call as a way to force members to take a public stand.
Currently, there are 31 Republicans in the House, so the proposed threshold would block the GOP caucus from calling for roll calls for their amendments. House Minority Leader Brad Jones, a North Reading Republican, said the change “would mean there’s a threat to whatever level of accountability and transparency you think exists right now, there would be even less than that.”
Democratic representatives discussed the rules in a phone caucus on Tuesday. Connolly said he expressed his “strong desire” to have the current roll call threshold be restored.
Several progressive activists also voiced their concerns about the proposal, even as they generally praised the decision to move to remote voting. Jonathan Cohn, issues chair of Progressive Massachusetts, a group that frequently calls for more transparency at the State House, said requiring the approval of 16 members for a roll call vote is already a higher threshold than what most other states require. “Raising it to 40 is just a way of saying we don’t want these to happen, period,” Cohn said.
Jacob Stern, deputy director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club, said the House seems to be “setting aside transparency for a need for speedy consensus.” “The system they’ve created to vote remotely seems designed at a minimum to tamp down dissent and at worst to completely silence it,” Stern said.
Hogan added that the House also built in procedures to allow for more time to review legislation in advance. Under the rules, the House will post the text of any bill being considered on its website by noon the day before the bill is being taken up.
Other provisions are also raising some concerns.
For example, Jones said he opposes provisions requiring any member who wants to speak to get on a list by 10 a.m. the morning of the debate and limiting the number of times any member can speak. He said this would prevent members from introducing an amendment, then responding to questions on that amendment.Under the rules, members would be allowed to make motions remotely and to offer written remarks to be entered in the branch’s journal. Members would also be given the ability to speak out, without signing up in advance, on any amendment introduced on the floor of the House.
In an interview Monday, Hogan said, “Every single person that needs to respond or wishes to respond to bill or amendment will be able to do so. It will just take little more patience.”