“If anyone were to ask me about whether or not to run for office [in the Massachusetts State House]. I would first give them a long list of reasons not to. Especially if you’re passionate about getting something done, rooted in a set of values, believe in democracy, and engaging, you’ll find it a frustrating place,” says former Representative Jay Kaufman in an interview for the Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts’ report on the Massachusetts State House, Democracy in Decline

The report is divided into three sections: an analysis of the State House, a comparative analysis, and an assessment of appropriate and needed reforms. 

Their key takeaway: the State House has become dysfunctional because of the “over-centralization of power, lack of transparency, and weak professionalism.”

Analysis of the State House

The report found that legislators do not possess much power to meaningfully influence legislative outcomes. Here’s why that’s a problem:

  1. Constituents are not represented
  2. Interests represented in legislation become narrow
  3. The powerful become more powerful
  4. Lack of transparency is incentivised so voters do not realize how powerless their representatives are
  5. Legislative output is reduced
  6. Lack of analysts, experts, and representatives who can influence the legislation yields lower quality legislation
  7. A seemingly-unified State House has more power over the Senate and Governor
  8. The House is less likely to reflect demands for change from both representatives and the people of Massachusetts

Legislator’s lack of power is due to the extreme centralization of power in the Speaker of the House. The Speaker decides which representatives get which committee chairs and leadership positions. These positions can add as much as 50% of representatives' base pay to their salary.

The House Speaker also decides the number of staffers each representative will have; “if you are a new representative, or a representative the Speaker doesn’t like, you are probably the only staffer. So you do everything,” according to a staffer interviewed for the piece. Not only are State House staff poorly allocated, they’re critically underpaid: 50% of staffers are unable to financially support themselves, and 17% are food insecure.

In 1954, the State House established the Legislative Research Bureau to give members independent information and analysis on legislation. The bureau was cut in the 90s, established again, and cut again in the early 2000s. Without this independent bureau, unbiased research into bills is difficult in Massachusetts for legislators and the public alike.

In regards to transparency, Massachusetts was one of only four states to receive an F from the Open States scorecard in 2015. MA’s poor marks were due in part to committee votes not being public, the high roll call threshold, and the out-of-date and confusing website. 

Comparative Analysis of the State House

While centralization of power is found in all the State legislatures in the report, Massachusetts remains unique because the Speaker has the power to name the committee chairs, vice-chairs, and assistant vice-chairs. Massachusetts is also the only state in the country without a legislative service agency. Additionally, the base salary for legislators is so low that aligning oneself with the Speaker for the promise of crucial stipends holds even more weight in MA than elsewhere. 

Assessment of Reforms

Democracy in Decline concludes by listing proposed solutions to the various problems outlined in the report including limiting speaker terms, establishing an independent research bureau, raising representatives’ base salary, removing the Speaker’s control over the House budget, and electing candidates who have committed to or demonstrated resisting the Speaker’s power. To learn more about how Act on Mass is furthering these goals explore our website.

The harsh facts outlined in this report must shape our advocacy. As the movement for State House Reform, we must seek to establish a democracy where no single person is able to orchestrate their own political theater. 

\ -- Blog post by Sergio Aguirre, Spring Digital Organizing Intern