• Maria Duaime Robinson

[Commonwealth Mag - audio] The Codcast: Rules reform battle in House not over

Two first-term legislators who tried unsuccessfully last week to change the way the speaker is selected say the fight for rules reform in the House is far from over.

Rep. Maria Robinson of Framingham and Rep. Patrick Kearney of Scituate said on the Codcast that a broader rules reform package is in the works, and one of their chief concerns is with the way rules are routinely suspended in the House.

“We can spend all the time in the world creating the best rules, but if they continue to be suspended then there’s nothing we can actually do to enforce that,” Robinson said. “There are lots of people who have concerns about that and who are looking at some larger rules reform for this upcoming session.”

Kearney said the House’s output is trending in the wrong direction. He said the House spent 1,200 hours in formal session during the 1985-1986 legislative session, but the chamber spent only 230 hours in formal session during the 2017-2018 session. Out of 5,000 bills filed during the last session, he said, only 500 made it to a floor vote and only 98 passed.

“I’m not saying nothing is getting done. I’m saying more needs to be done,” he said.

Catherine Williams, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo, sent an email to CommonWealth late in the day on Tuesday saying that that 547 laws — not 98 — passed during the 2017-2018 session.

Robinson is an energy expert with a degree in chemical engineering from MIT and a masters in energy law from the University of Tulsa. Kearney, 23, is a graduate of Mass Maritime Academy and a licensed, certified Coast Guard captain.

Last week, Robinson filed a motion to have the Democratic caucus vote by secret ballot the next time it nominates a speaker. Her motion was backed by Kearney and a handful of other lawmakers, but it was rejected overwhelmingly on a voice vote even though the current rules required a roll call. Most of the lawmakers who spoke in opposition to the rules change said it would lessen transparency in the House by concealing how lawmakers vote for speaker.

Kearney said the rules change wouldn’t have reduced transparency because it would have only applied to the nomination process in the Democratic caucus; lawmakers still would have been required to take a public vote for speaker in the House chamber. “So there is nothing that is not transparent about it,” Kearney said. “It would eliminate some of the punishment, the retaliation structure in the House and it would also prevent some of these grudges that are held over decades.”

George Bachrach, a former state senator and Democratic pundit, commended Robinson and Kearney for their courage in pushing for change. He said the big problem on Beacon Hill is the concentration of power in the hands of the speaker and Senate president, who appoint all the leaders in their respective branches, determine how much they get paid through the dispensation of leadership stipends, and have total control over the flow of legislation.

“That much power has a chilling effect on democracy in the Legislature,” said Bachrach, who added that one way of dealing with the concentration of power is to impose term limits on legislative leaders and elected officials in general. House rules limited a speaker’s reign to eight years until early 2017, when Speaker Robert DeLeo successfully changed the rules to allow him to continue serving.

Once an opponent of term limits, Bachrach said he has come to see the restriction on time in office as necessary. “In the public domain, staying too long disconnects you from the real world,” he said. “Power engenders to some degree intellectual corruption and term limits can help with that.”

Both Kearney and Robinson said rules reform in the House wasn’t a big issue in their campaigns for election. But they both said they will continue to push for changes in the way the House operates. “Nothing is going to change in the House if someone doesn’t ask for it,” Kearney said.

Robinson said she, as a first-term legislator, doesn’t have a lot to lose in continuing to fight for rules reforms because first-term legislators rarely have much success in passing legislation and they usually end up with offices in the State House sub-basement.

Read more and listen to the podcast here:

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