Republicans allege power grab in rules debate
DeLeo counters with charge of GOP recklessness
THE NORMALLY CONGENIAL dealings of the Massachusetts House of Representatives turned into a scene of vituperative charges and countercharges being hurled across the partisan divide on Wednesday as lawmakers struggled to devise a plan for how to conduct business amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo accused House Republicans of putting House members and staff at risk by requiring them to come into Beacon Hill to vote, while Republicans accused DeLeo of a power grab and moved to shut down the session, which they say was poised further concentrate control and silence debate in the already tightly-run chamber.
“I thought we just celebrated Patriots’ Day in the place where democracy was born,” said House Minority Leader Brad Jones, a North Reading Republican. “Apparently some people want to make it the place where democracy dies.”
The showdown centered around rules proposed by House leadership to allow lawmakers to meet in formal sessions with remote participation during the coronavirus crisis.
On Tuesday, several lawmakers – Republicans and progressive Democrats – opposed provisions in the proposed rules that would raise the threshold needed to call for a roll call vote from 16 to 40 members. By Tuesday night, DeLeo had agreed to remove that from the rules.
On Wednesday, however, the Republican caucus continued to oppose the rules. Jones said the biggest disagreement was over provisions that would have required members to sign up to speak by 10 a.m. on the morning of a debate. Members could speak for up to 10 minutes, but could only speak once. The exception is the member who is carrying the bill – the one person chosen to defend the bill on the floor.
Jones said this would eliminate the ability of members to respond to something that is said on the floor. If a member introduces an amendment and speaks to it, they would not then have a chance to answer questions or rebut anything someone else says.
Massachusetts Republican Party chairman Jim Lyons called the proposed rules a “power grab” by DeLeo.
Rep. Shawn Dooley, a Norfolk Republican, said it is important that any bill is as fully vetted as possible. He said practically, the proposed rules would let the speaker choose one person who can speak as much as they like, while other voices would be stifled and allowed to speak just once. “To have this arrogance that only the Democratic leadership should be able to decide what gets debated and for how long and who gets to speak I think is horrendous,” Dooley said. “It sets a very poor concept of democracy.”
The Legislature had planned to consider a bill Thursday that would let Treasurer Deborah Goldberg borrow money in the current fiscal year to maintain the state’s cash flow despite a delay in the income tax filing deadline. The spending bill legally requires a roll call vote in order to pass.
The State House News Service reported that around two dozen representatives of both parties attended the session, the most people who had been in the House chamber together since the pandemic began.
DeLeo, in his statement, said the Republican actions imperiled the state’s cash flow by delaying the borrowing bill. In addition, he said, “The Republican action today, which forced us to call in Members to the Chamber, is in direct conflict with the Baker Administration’s guidance on physical distancing and puts at risk House Members, staff, and the public at large.”
But Jones, in a statement, said he will “vigorously refute any suggestion that the Republican caucus is in any way jeopardizing the state’s finances or putting people’s health and safety at risk.” In an interview, Jones emphasized that Republicans agreed to adopt the rules long enough to pass the borrowing bill. He also said he suggested to leadership giving each party a block of time that the speaker and minority leader could divide between their members – but Democrats did not accept that recommendation.
Rep. Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat who is the former vice chair of the House Rules Committee, called it “outrageous” that Jones is “capitulating” to right-wing members of the Republican Party in trying to get them more time to speak. “The real power grab here is by the minority leader who’s capitulated to members of his party who would rather we not be in session,” Decker said.
“We need to be in session,” Decker said, noting that the House cannot take up spending bills without a formal session. “At a time when so many people in Massachusetts are suffering…our jobs is to get together to start figuring out how to meet their needs.”
The House Progressive Caucus, led by Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield and Rep. Jack Patrick Lewis of Framingham, blamed Republicans for pulling “a partisan political move” and said Republicans “are looking to hold up the democratic process and to further endanger the health and well-being of their colleagues and legislative staff.”GOP leaders call the charges disingenuous and say they are perfectly willing to agree to a structure for conducting sessions remotely, but not one that short circuits debate and participation in the legislative process.