House plays follow the leader

On January 30, in the midst of a debate over the rules to govern the legislative process on Beacon Hill, a vote took place that revealed a lot about the way the House runs.

The vote was on a technical issue dealing with the way bills are handled as the legislative session comes to an end, when time runs short and political brinkmanship is the name of the game. Rep. Bradley Jones Jr. of North Reading, the Republican minority leader, spoke in favor of the amendment and asked for a roll call vote.

Rep. Thomas Petrolati, Democrat of Ludlow, who was presiding over the session, allotted three minutes for the roll call and punched in no votes for himself and House Speaker Robert DeLeo. A wave of no votes quickly filled the electronic voting board in the House chamber, but then a video of the proceedings captures Petrolati realizing something was wrong. “It’s a yes?” he asks. “Switch’em. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”

Suddenly, the no votes of Petrolati and DeLeo were switched to yes votes and then at least 63 other Democrats (and one unenrolled lawmaker, Rep. Susannah Whipps of Athol) followed suit, switching their votes from no to yes. As Bob Katzen of Beacon Hill Roll Call reports in an exquisitely detailed report, it was a case of follow the leader.

“To the reader and viewer, this appears that these 63 Democrats simply watched how DeLeo and Petrolati voted and blindly followed their lead and voted no. And then switched to yes when DeLeo and Petrolati switched to yes,” Katzen reported. “Did these 63 even know what they were voting on? Did they care? What would cause them to switch their votes other than they decided to follow the ‘suggestion’ of the speaker?”

Katzen sent emails soliciting comments on what happened to each lawmaker in the chamber that night, but only a handful responded. DeLeo and Petrolati said nothing.

Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton told Katzen she voted yes initially and stood by her vote. “I was as surprised as many watching from the gallery that many changed their vote after the speaker’s vote was cast,” she said. “As a first-year representative at my first formal session, I had not witnessed something like that before.”

Rep. Russell Holmes of Boston, a leading DeLeo critic, said the vote captured how Beacon Hill works. “Welcome to the House of Representatives,” he told Katzen. “This is exactly how the House runs itself and the members should be ashamed. The speaker is like a shepherd leading a flock of sheep.”

The vote switching fits a narrative of the House as an institution where power is concentrated at the top – in the speaker’s hands.

“Historically, it wasn’t always this way,” said Phillip Sego, a former Sierra Club lobbyist who recently authored a withering critique of the concentration of power in the House in December. “Nevertheless, in the past 40 years, speakers have become increasingly autocratic….Each successive House speaker has exploited the potential, under the state constitution, to amass tremendous (and despotic) power to the office.”

According to Sego, the means of amassing power is the leverage a speaker holds over members through his ability to appoint selected lawmakers to leadership positions that come with stipends. Sego said committee appointments, aides, and office space are also used to entice lawmakers to the speaker’s side.

“Various representatives trade their fealty for positions of authority,” Sego said. “Those who oppose the Speaker (or who simply annoy him) will get terrible committee assignments, one staffer, and cramped, dank offices hidden away in the State House basement. These committees do little, have few bills, and have no authority. Meanwhile, powerful committee chairs get additional staff, nice offices, and the opportunity to hobnob with leadership members.”

Michael Jonas, writing in CommonWealth in 2016, painted a more nuanced portrait of DeLeo, describing him as a politician who has thrived on finding consensus on such complex issues as gun control and opioid abuse. “But ‘consensus’ has also come to describe a way of operating in the House that scorns debate and freewheeling back and forth on issues, and doesn’t easily abide dissent or disagreement. Consensus often looks like the end result of a forced march to a predetermined end,” Jonas wrote.

Jonas cites one example similar in some respects to the incident reported by Katzen. A bill dealing with a subsidy for solar power was released from committee one day before the end of formal legislative sessions in 2015. Solar advocates saw the bill as a major blow to the industry, but House leaders pressured members to quickly pass the measure, which they did, by a vote of 150-2.

But as no quick deal was reached with the Senate on final legislation, lawmakers took some time to look the solar bill over and decided they didn’t like what they saw. Several months later 100 reps released a letter they sent to the House members of a conference committee urging them to go with the Senate language.

“The lawmakers, in effect, declared their opposition to the bill they had nearly all voted in lockstep in favor of four months earlier. It left the clear impression that they had either felt pressured to vote in favor of a bill they opposed or hadn’t had time to consider the legislation and its full impact,” Jonas wrote.

“I think the process which the solar bill followed is a symptom of a bigger problem in the House,” said one rep who was not identified. “Although all of us are treated respectfully by the Speaker, we’re not involved in the process, and oftentimes we’re asked to blindly follow. It would be difficult to describe it as democracy.”



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