Retiring rep, rep-elect share insights on State House opacity
‘What is on display for the public is strictly performative politics’
SOME OF THE SHORTCUTS in the democratic process we have come to take for granted – consolidated budget amendments, limitations on debate, and conference committees resolving differences in House and Senate bills behind closed doors – have all been on display recently on Beacon Hill.
On the Codcast, Rep. Denise Provost, who will retire as a Democratic state rep from Somerville in January, and Democrat Erika Uyterhoeven, who will replace her, agreed that Beacon Hill is an opaque place. Uyterhoeven outlined what she hopes to do about it.
Uyterhoeven describes herself as a democratic socialist who believes the State House is out of step with working people, failing to provide needed support for transportation, education, public health, and housing. She heads a group called Act on Mass, which attributes a lot of the disconnect between Beacon Hill and working people to a legislative process that is broken.
“When I say it’s broken, it happens at all sorts of levels. Many times reps are voting on things and they don’t know what they are voting on,” she said. “The public has very little time to engage with the bills. Oftentimes, when CommonWealth magazine and other sources of media get a chance to finally understand what’s going on, the vote has already passed. We’re doing retrospective – this is what happened – rather than this is what they’re voting on and here’s how you can have your voice heard.”
“Our goal was to really expand that voter base and the engagement of that voter base, so for us a lot of the work that we do is online to make it accessible for young people,” she said. “We’re hoping to launch a website in the next month that makes it so if you look up any issue – whether that’s health care, climate change, education – you can see the bills that are addressing those issues and where those bills are and who are the decision makers and how do you engage with them, call them, tweet them, email them, whatever it is to get your point of view heard.”
Provost, a 14-year legislative veteran, comes at the issue from a different perspective, but she doesn’t disagree with Uyterhoeven’s assessment. “Certainly, the State House is an opaque place,” she said. “The experience of working remotely and engaging with constituents who are trying to follow the Legislature has made that abundantly clear to me…. Many people find our State House mystifying.”
Act on Mass’s initial goals are fairly simple – disclose how lawmakers vote in committee, make bills public 72 hours prior to a vote, and hold more roll calls. She said the use of consolidated amendments, where amendments are lumped together and voted on as a package, illustrate the Legislature’s lack of transparency. “We know that debate happened, but it does not happen in the public eye. It happens behind closed doors,” Uyterhoeven said. “What is on display for the public to view is strictly performative politics.”
Provost said many constituents have contacted her wanting to know what’s going on with the conference committees trying to work out differences between House and Senate bills dealing with police reform and climate change. She says she tells them she doesn’t know what’s happening because all their deliberations are private. She said she recognizes some privacy is needed to have free-wheeling discussions, but she indicated she is starting to have some doubts because some bills never emerge from conference.“There’s certainly a tradeoff between efficiency and certain democratic principles like full debate and transparency,” Provost said. “Doing things remotely during COVID has shifted that balance even further – toward the unknowable, shall we say.”
Uyterhoeven says the Legislature needs to engage voters more. “The State House is largely run like a corporation, in that it’s very hierarchical and the power is held by a small number of people and the rank and files reps, even those in some form of leadership, feel that their voice doesn’t get heard or acknowledged,” she said. “The point is this is not a corporation. We actually work for our constituents. That’s our boss. That’s what’s unique about our democratic institutions is that it isn’t just about the CEO at the top or the shareholders at the top.”