The Last Harrumph

This is my last issue as editor of CommonWealth. It was my intention, believe it or not, to go out with something light and lively in this space. I wanted to reflect on how much fun Massachusetts politics can be. I suspect that hasn’t been evident enough in our pages–that we enjoy our subject considerably. I’m afraid one would not guess from reading our quarterly efforts that we laugh along with the rest of you at the high points and low points.

Take the wonderfully comic scandal that blew into Boston Harbor in August, like a fresh sea breeze on a stiflingly slow news month. Now there was some material to work with! A former congressman (known as “Blutie” by the wacky governor who appointed him to run the port authority), drinking like a sailor on the taxpayer’s tab. And a girl named Gidget! Who lifts up her shirt for the local tabloid’s photographers! The best kind of scandal. No real harm, and Blutie is gone within days…only to turn up a few weeks later as a fill-in on a local talk-radio show… The new governor, less wacky than the former one (who went on to write dimestore novels), appoints his young chief of staff to run the port authority. One of our antiquated congressmen refers to her dismissively as “some girl sitting in the next office,” whereupon the congressman’s sexism is eagerly denounced both by the governor and the actual young-woman-in-the-next-office, our 34-year-old lieutenant governor, who stands a good chance of becoming governor in a year or two, if only George W. Bush becomes President and taps our current governor to be Secretary of Cinematography, or some such position… How interesting it is to speculate!

But something weird happened on the way to my last hurrah. When I sat down to write, a screed started to take shape. Those of you who have followed our work in the three-and-a-half years since we started publishing know that we have tried not to be ill-tempered about our subjects. And I don’t mean to be ill-tempered in what follows. But when I think about what has been going on at the top levels of state government in recent months it truly makes me angry. The comedy of August’s dog days faded and the spectacle of a state government in gridlock, or maybe headlock, took its place. The more I thought about it, the less funny it all began to seem. What has happened to the leadership in this state? What has happened to the Legislature? Has that once-august body ever been as useless and feeble as it is today? Have its leaders ever been so intent on autocracy? The answer is probably yes. But how can anyone who believes in the ideals of democratic government not look on with dismay, or distaste, or disgust?

As the long, strange standoff between the House Speaker and the Senate President stretched on through the summer, and then past Labor Day and into the fall, my thoughts drifted back to how it all began. I don’t mean how this particular standoff began, the one that kept the state budget tied up for months after it was due on the governor’s desk. I mean how Massachusetts government came to this kind of impasse, in which all major decisions about state spending are made in secret by two men, taking as long as they please, and all vestiges of open representative government seem to have been tossed out the window.

It could be argued that the withering away of the Legislature has been underway for a long time in this state. But I think the date when the institution took one giant step toward its current degeneration can be fixed specifically: It was on April 9, 1996. That’s when a block of Democrats joined with a block of Republicans in the House of Representatives and elected Thomas M. Finneran to be Speaker of the House. Most of them knew at the time they were electing a tough-minded leader, a conservative Democrat who would enjoy the exercise of power. But they couldn’t have known just how total his control would become. He rapidly proved to be in full command not only of his job, but of theirs, too. “The will of the House,” which is a phrase Finneran likes to use, has become noth- ing more than the will of Speaker Finneran. They are one and the same.

And so day after day through August and September, Finneran and his counterpart in the Senate, the equally strong-minded Thomas F. Birmingham, were locked in a private negotiation that served as a conclusive demonstration, if we needed one, that they are the only two elected members of the Legislature who really count. What were they talking about? What deals were they making? Who knows? Not even the six members of the House-Senate conference committee, who were supposed to be doing this work of finishing the budget, seemed to know. Several years ago, when Finneran and Birmingham were in charge of their respective Ways and Means Committees, they were an integral part of the leadership team. Now there is no team. Their own Ways and Means chairmen stood by through September like political eunuchs, embarrassingly idle and irrelevant.

After Labor Day, as some House members were getting restive, Finneran wrote in a memo, “I owe the Senate President the respect and courtesy of maintaining the confidentiality of our daily discussions and I appreciate your understanding of the nature of the negotiating process.” You can bet that House members understood perfectly well the “nature” of the negotiations. Finneran was telling them that the details of the state budget were none of their business until the time when he and Birmingham had closed the deal. Then it would be submitted for their approval, of course, but on a take-it-or-take-it basis: There would be no way, after all this, for the House or Senate to undo their leaders’ work. The budget would need to be rushed to the governor’s desk.

Senate President Birmingham obviously shares responsibility for what has taken place here–the hijacking of the representative process. He has admitted he is “embarrassed” by it, and even raised the possibility (tentatively) that perhaps the points of disagreement should have been made public. But Finneran was unapologetic, secure in his notion that what he wanted was in the best interests of everyone else. Think about that statement that “I owe the Senate President” the courtesy of keeping budget negotiations confidential. What did he owe his fellow House members? What did he owe the public?

This is, by the way, not the kind of leadership Finneran promised his colleagues and the public when he took office. Coming in on the heels of the ethics scandal that blew former Speaker Charles Flaherty out of office, Finneran was full of talk about “repairing the damage to this institution,” and restoring the public’s faith in the Legislature, etc. After he was re-elected as Speaker of the House in January of 1997, he took great pride in laying out a timetable for the session’s work. “We will begin and complete debate of the House budget during the week of April 14th,” he decreed.

In an interview with CommonWealth magazine two months earlier, he spoke at length about his anger at how the process broke down in the early 1990s, before he became chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. After he took over the committee, he admitted, “it was a one-man show.” There simply wasn’t time to allow other committee members to debate each item in the budget, he said. “That was a huge criticism, and a legitimate criticism of the Legislature, as well: Our budgets were never done on time.” Thinking back to the fiscal problems in the early ’90s, he continued: “What a ridiculous way to run an entity that’s supposed to be serious about itself and about its work. Ridiculous! And it was purely political posturing and political crisis. Look what Tommy Birmingham and I do now: We put the budget on the governor’s desk two weeks before it’s due. I’d like to put it on his desk two months before it’s due–I think we could do even better.”

Instead, he has done worse. Finneran would be the first to tell you he did not become Speaker to democratize the House. What he wanted to do was make the trains run on time. But now he has failed at even that. Though he was able to run his committee as a “one-man show,” and has even been able to run the House that way, he hasn’t been able to run the entire Legislature by himself. There is, after all, that other body known as the Senate. Bumping headlong into the only resistance that exists on Beacon Hill, in the person of Tom Birmingham (even the governor is powerless against Finneran, since he doesn’t have the votes to sustain a veto), Finneran put all his hopes for an orderly, well-run process aside and appointed himself to go one-on-one with Birmingham, for as long as it would take.

I assume that by the time this magazine is in the hands of our readers all of this will be resolved, and the standoff will be well on the way to being forgotten. The attitude that prevailed throughout the budget stalemate will be even more prevalent: “So what?” What harm was done by having a state spending plan completed 90, or 95, or 100 days late? In fact, the state saved money. All the spending increases due in the new budget were delayed. That resulted in some “inconveniences” around the state, but few will lose sleep because the Student Awareness Fire Education program was put on hold for a couple of months.

And concerns about the “democratic process”? When writing about government one always has to confront the conventional wisdom that the “process” in the Legislature is something people don’t care much about. It’s an abstraction–a concern of good-government liberals. It’s easily dismissed because almost no one sees it as a “quality-of-life issue.” Nor does the public have high expectations about how the Legislature conducts its business. By now we all accept the comparison between lawmaking and sausages.

Yet that hardly proves that nothing important is at stake. The people who wrote the Massachusetts Constitution and fought for a representative democracy took questions about the balance of power seriously. Why should we turn a blind eye toward leaders who appropriate too much power? Why should we now discard the idea that the people’s representatives collectively make the laws? Is that an ideal that nobody believes in anymore? Have we all become smarter and wiser than John Adams and James Madison? Finneran has spoken many times about the work of the Legislature as “a noble enterprise.” He professes to detest what happened when the Legislature was not “serious about itself and its work.” So, of all people, at least he should be serious about re-examining the way he is doing his work.

One matter he should be thinking about is this: It would do some good to bring the work of the Legislature back into the light of day. Secret negotiations between two men (neither of them elected statewide) about a $20 billion budget are a disgrace to democratic government. The problem is deeper even than that: The Legislature has for several years declared the final negotiations between the House and Senate conference committee to be closed to the public and the press. Why? So as to prevent public “posturing” by committee members. Thus, the real reasons deals are made between the House and Senate that affect what money will and will not be spent are “confidential.” All so that we don’t have to witness any “posturing.”

And the problem goes even deeper than that: The Legislature that gave us in 1958 the Open Meetings Law exempted itself from the act. Throughout Massachusetts, any Selectmen who attempt to conduct town business in secret are subject to stern inquiries from the local D.A.–and maybe even prosecution. But the work of the Legislature is apparently too important to conduct openly. And Tom Finneran wonders why the citizens of the commonwealth have trouble believing their legislators are engaged in “a noble enterprise”? This is an institution that is so accustomed to doing its business surreptitiously that a few years ago it even gave all its members a pay raise without holding hearings or giving the matter more than a few minutes debate. Then they slipped through a capital-gains tax cut the governor wanted in a bill entitled “An Act providing tax relief for low-income families.”

Legislative leaders will offer reasons galore why they need to work things out in private sessions. It’s all baloney. Many other states have legislatures that are not exempted from their open meetings laws. Many other states hold their final budget-writing conference committee meeting in public, recognizing that this is where the real work of the budget gets done. (They also recognize that budget resolution is so mind-numbingly dull that most of the press and the public can’t bear to watch, anyway. Holding open meetings turns out to be the surest way to get most of the press to lose interest.)

“A Legislature by its nature is supposed to be a place where disagreements are public and then resolved.” Who might have stated things so wisely and so elegantly? John Adams? Daniel Webster? Tip O’Neill? William Weld? No, it was Thomas M. Finneran, in the aforementioned CommonWealth interview. How can the Speaker so easily dismiss his own wisdom? He ought to have those simple words inscribed and posted in a prominent place on the fine wood walls in his grand office. “A LEGISLATURE BY ITS NATURE IS SUPPOSED TO BE A PLACE WHERE DISAGREEMENTS ARE PUBLIC AND THEN RESOLVED.”

Elsewhere in this issue we feature Ronnie Dugger’s reconsideration of Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward, which is a vision of what American society might look like in the year 2000. Nowadays, we tend to look at Bellamy and other utopians as naïve dreamers at best, crackpots at worst. I think Dugger does an admirable job that is most uncommon these days: He takes utopian thought seriously, understands down to the letter where it was misguided, and then goes on to conclude that we can, and should, continue to plan ways to build a radically better society.

There is not much utopian spirit left to our politics today. Is that a good thing? Those who are deeply involved in the day-to-day work of practical politics tend to think so. Utopians get in the way. They make unreasonable demands. Their far-fetched ideals are irrelevant to getting something done. The 1990s have seen the triumph of the idea that governing, and especially the making of public policy, is a centrist business. The less we hear of voices from “the extremes” the better.

Russell Jacoby, in his recent book The End of Utopia, makes a provocative argument that our politics suffer in an era such as this, when utopian ideas vanish from the scene. “I am using utopian,” he writes, “in its widest, and least threatening, meaning: a belief that the future could fundamentally surpass the present. I am referring to the notion that the future texture of life, work and even love might little resemble that now familiar to us. I am alluding to the idea that history contains possibilities of freedom and pleasure hardly tapped.”

This idea, he notes, “is stone dead. Few envision the future as anything but a replica of today–sometimes better, but usually worse.” As a result, politics has become tedious and dull. “We are increasingly asked to choose between the status quo or something worse. Other alternatives do not seem to exist….” Jacoby writes. “Politics devolves into scandals or, at best, policy, ways to tinker with the ship of state.”

This is a critique that is often directed at centrism. Jacoby aims his fire primarily at modern-day liberalism, charging that “liberals, divested of a left wing, suffer from waning determination and imagination.” Historically, it has been radicals and utopians who have put forward ideas about how to fundamentally reorder society. There are good reasons, Jacoby acknowledges, we have lost faith in radical schemes. Even socialists don’t have much faith in socialism anymore. But what have we lost along the way?

When we first started to dream up this magazine four years ago, I had a conversation with Mitchell Kertzman, the businessman who funded and helped envision the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth. Kertzman believed there was a need for a new approach to state politics that would be practical, pragmatic, and more oriented toward facts than ideology. But he also spoke of the need to look, when the need arises, for “radical” approaches. I remember being struck by the idea of a businessman who wasn’t afraid to use the word radical.

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
In editing this magazine, it has turned out to be easier to find that pragmatic, fact-oriented side to politics than the bold, sweeping radical side. The only “radical” idea that has consistently popped up in our pages is the idea of democracy itself-the idea that the best kind of government is the most inclusionary, most participatory one. Unless that is now considered to be utopian, we have not had much utopianism in CommonWealth. We have been, in that sense, in step with the political spirit of these times.

In journalistic approach, we have been out of step: Not devoted to entertainment, not deliberately inane, not obsessed with the pursuit of scandal or the sex lives of public figures, not interested in vacuous celebrities, not willing to reduce everything to snippets that can be digested with the morning muffin. We have wanted the magazine to be reasonable, to be engaging, and to be useful. Has it been? That’s for you to say. Now, with a new editor coming on board, it’s a good time for readers to pipe up and tell us what you think. Of course, the outgoing editor always wants to hear people say, “Don’t change a thing.” But that would show a lack of utopian imagination. What if the magazine were to take up some big ideas? What would they be? Drop a line, if you like, to: