10 Problems on Beacon Hill
In 2017, shortly after he was inaugurated, Donald Trump initiated a series of draconian and racist immigration policies: attempting to enact a Muslim ban, separating children from their families, and stepping up deportations.
Progressive activists in Massachusetts came together with one voice to protest at Logan Airport and elsewhere against these policies, and came together behind the Safe Communities Act, a bill which would have prevented the creation of a Muslim registry and limited State Police from supporting Trump’s deportation machine.
The Bill got 81 co-sponsors after filing, and when the Committee on Public Safety & Homeland Security held a hearing on the bill, hundreds of people packed the chamber, demanding swift action.
And then… It took 12 full months after the hearing in June 2017 until the committee decided what to do with the bill in June 2018. They chose to “send it to study.” Six months later, on Dec 31st, the committee failed to file anything. There was no report.
At the end of two years, vulnerable immigrant populations received no protections, and residents who advocated for them got:
- No record of who on the committee voted to kill the bill
- No reason given by the committee why they killed the bill
- No report, indicating what might be changed and lead to passage next time
It is unknown how many immigrants in Massachusetts were directly impacted by the lack of action in our legislature.
This story outlines a number of the main issues with transparency on Beacon Hill, specifically the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Here are the top 10 issues with the Massachusetts State House:
1. No Record of Votes (floor & committee)
You would think that when your state rep votes - You would know how they voted. They represent YOU after all. But usually you don’t. Massachusetts is one of the least transparent and least accountable states in the US.
If you want to know who supported and who opposed the Safe Communities Act, you are out of luck.
Similarly, when the legislature passed Criminal Justice Reform in 2017, they included a “Blue Lives Matter” amendment drafted by Republicans and opposed by Criminal justice advocates that created a new mandatory minimum sentence. But good luck figuring out if your Rep voted for it. There’s no record.
Whether on the floor like the Blue Lives Matter amendment or in committee like SCA, the only time they record votes is through a Roll Call.
And that’s not easy to get. The only way to get a Roll Call on the floor is for 16 Reps to stand at the same time and demand it. And it’s fast. The Reps have 4-5 seconds to jump to their feet with 15 other colleagues. Hope nobody needed a bathroom break or they’ll miss their chance. In committees, rules require at least two members to demand a Roll Call and it can only work on certain types of votes.
If there’s no roll call, there is a voice vote. The chair simply declares the outcome of the vote by how many aye’s and nay’s they hear. There is no record of how wide the margin was or who voted which way. And in most cases, nobody says a word, the chair just decides what the outcome would be, based on what he or she is told by leadership.
In committees, it’s extremely common to “poll” members via email with a 15 minute deadline. During the January 30th, 2019 Rules debate, several lawmakers spoke about how they routinely had to pull over into the breakdown lane of a highway in order to get on their phone and vote: Or else they’d lose their chance!
This is not democracy in any meaningful sense.
2. Limited Information on the Website
If you go to the legislature’s website and look at the page for the 2017 Criminal Justice Reform Bill passed by the House, you will find a relatively confusing interface.
71 separate actions are logged on this bill, including the passage of a number of different amendments in a completely random order.
To look up the text of the amendment, you need to switch to the amendments tab, and then click on the “number” to bring up the text of the amendment. Many of the amendments were withdrawn, with no reason given, and many others were turned into “consolidated” amendments, which may take the text or an edited version of the amendment text and pass in a consolidated fashion.
A few of the amendments, like amendment #23 have “further” amendments filed on them. 23.1 changes the text of amendment #23. This amendment was adopted via a roll call vote, Roll call #286. You can’t see by clicking anywhere on this page how the Reps voted. No, you must navigate to the page of the House clerk, go to the Journals page, select the correct session and enter the Roll Call # you found on the other page. Then you can pull up a pdf copy of who voted how on the amendment. It’s a PDF so it’s not particularly easy to search within. Certainly, you can’t click on a legislator’s page and expect to see how she or he voted!
This is completely unnecessary confusion, because the MA State Senate provides an example of how to link to the votes in question right on the main page of the bill, making the process easier for regular voters to get involved:
3. “Sent to Study”
Instead of being honest about what they are doing, legislators kill bills by “Sending” them to “Study.”
When news reports on the bill reference “a study,”a voter might think that the legislature is actually doing some investigation, hearing expert testimony, doing analysis of the implications of this proposal or that proposal.
The polite language hides what’s really going on, and incentivizes news reports to avoid making the claim that the “Bill was killed”. It is technically possible after all, that the committee might issue a report before the end of December, and somehow the bill might be passed in informal session. Ignore the fact that this would never happen.
When a mafia leader wants to kill someone and he’s worried about people hearing him, he says “I need you to take care of a problem.” That’s the same thing “Let’s send this bill to study” means on Beacon Hill.
Committees have three choices when a bill comes up for a vote:
- Report it favorably (rule that the bill “ought to pass” and pass it along to the next step in lawmaking)
- Report it adversely (rule that the bill “ought NOT to pass” and kill it)
- “Send it to Study” and pretend it might still pass (in MA politics that’s a euphemism for “kill the bill”).
Of the 275 items that the Committee on Public Safety & Homeland Security reported during 2017-2018, they only reported a single bill adversely. (0.36%). The Joint Committee on Housing reported none of the 165 bills it considered adversely. (0.00%).
Voters would be better served by Committees actually exercising their power to vote bills up or down and go on the record supporting or opposing certain bills. There are indeed bills introduced by conservative Republicans who you would expect the legislature to kill. Why are legislators shirking their duty?
It only takes less than 50 words to kill a bill!
4. Committee Reports - no info!
When a committee makes a decision on a bill. Either to recommend passage or not, they do so on the basis of many hours of expert and public testimony, documents that committee staff compile, and discussions on the committee.
Yet when a bill is reported, the committee doesn’t include any of that. In other states like California, where the committee report includes a list of who testified about legislation and whether they supported or opposed it. They think their residents deserve to know if, for example, a healthcare insurance executive testified against singlepayer healthcare, or if a Senior Executive at Exxon testified against a bill to tackle climate change.
In Massachusetts, all this information is diligently compiled by the committee staff, and then put in a file somewhere instead of being published.
The public deserves to know what information led a committee to decide one way or another.
Additionally, when the committee advances or kills legislation, they don’t have to give a reason. When the Safe Communities Act was killed (by “sending to study”), there was a 7 line study order that made no reference to the reason for the bill’s failure.
We don’t know why the 19 member committee voted to kill the bill. We don’t have any public report on who testified against the bill.
5. Long Delays
Every two years, a new legislative session begins. The last one began on Jan 2nd, 2019. The legislature has 18 month formal session terms, meaning that any bills introduced in Jan 2019 have until July 31st, 2020 to be acted upon, or they are dead and have to be re-introduced the following year.
The legislature has 18 months to hold hearings on all the bills that have been introduced, decide whether to advance them to the floor for a vote, and then handle all business by the end of July in the second year.
Outside for the first month when the legislature is organizing itself, and the last month when it is trying to pass laws before it’s July 31st deadline, that leaves over 15 months of wiggle room, where bills can be held in committee with no updates.
It’s not uncommon for a bill history to look like:
- Filed January 4th, 2017
- Committee hearing January 7th 2018
- Killed in committee (by being sent to study) on June 2nd, 2018
That’s 12 months of down-time between the introduction of the bill and the hearing, when the public has no insight into whether the legislature is working on the issue or not.
That’s also 6 months between the hearing and when a vote is taken to advance or kill the bill.
In these long periods of time, it’s extremely hard for the average voter to know what they can do to help support the bill.
6. Rapid Action (no time to read)
In contrast to the long waits that bills can suffer in hearings, when the Speaker wants to take action on a bill, he can move it in incredibly short time periods.
In 2018, the so-called “Grand Bargain” bill to raise the minimum wage had been held in committee for months as activists advocated for passage. Then, suddenly on June 20th, the Ways & Means committee reported out a new version of the bill, and the Speaker ensured that the bill was taken up and passed the same day. Less than 24 hours is not sufficient time for Reps to read a new draft of a 38-page law dealing with a number of complicated issues.
It’s not sufficient time for Reps to consider which amendments they want to file to strengthen the legislation and seek support from their colleagues on those votes.
Remember, to get a recorded vote on any amendment, you need to have 10% of the body, 16 members, stand in a 5 second window to demand roll call.
When a bill is rammed through the chamber in less than 24 hours you have no hope of making meaningful amendments.
There were only 5 amendments filed on this bill on June 20th, and only 1 of them was adopted: An amendment written by the chair of the Ways & Means committee, who had just reported out the bill earlier that day. His amendment? Technical fixes to the language of the bill he had reported out in a rush earlier to ensure the language the Reps were voting on passed legal muster.
Forget about meaningfully impacting legislation passed in such a rush. Most reps didn’t have time to read to bill and understand what they were voting on!
In Jan 2019, Jonathan Hecht attempted to pass a new rule in the House that Reps be given 72 hours to read legislation before voting on it. Leadership spoke against this rule and defeated it, ensuring that Reps continue to be in the dark on what they’ve voting on in many cases.
7. Vanishing Amendments
Because bills are often killed in committee, it’s a necessity for Reps to try to advance bills via amendment to other bills. The Senate attempted to pass part of the Safe Communities Act through a budget amendment, for example.
After a bill is put in the Order of the Day, meaning it will come up for a vote the next day, there is a certain time period, sometimes very brief, during which Reps can submit amendments, and then they can “co-sponsor” the amendments of other Reps.
Unfortunately, it’s common practice for State house Leadership to take Reps one by one into closed offices and demand that they withdraw their amendments.
Now, it would sometimes make sense for an amendment to be withdrawn, if for example someone else submitted the same amendment and it passed.
But in most cases, this is a method of leadership ensuring that issues they don’t support don’t come up for a vote by the full House.
During the Criminal Justice Reform debate, 82.8% of all amendments were withdrawn. Very few of them were passed by other means. Mostly, the issues just died, and you don’t know who supported them!
8. Vanishing Committee Assignments
Above, we outlined that bills mostly die in committee. The committee chair enforces what leadership wants and won’t let meaningful bills come up for a vote.
But what happens if a committee chair decides to advance a bill that leadership doesn’t support?
He or she is brought into the same closed-door office meetings that happen all too often, and the implication is, that if the right outcome doesn’t happen, the chair might lose his or her committee chairmanship.
Losing a chairmanship means you lose the leadership bonus that all committee chairs receive, and you can lose your fancy office and have to move to the basement. More concerning, you likely would be forced to fire the staff that had been working to support the committee work.
Think this sounds far-fetched? It’s not and it’s known around the building that those Reps who run afoul of leadership will suffer the consequences.
In 2017, Rep Russell Holmes was stripped of his committee vice chairmanship after making public comments mildly critical of the Speaker.
9. Follow the Leader
There aren’t many votes recorded in the Massachusetts House, but if you look at the data as it exists, you’ll find something very striking.
The vast majority of Democratic reps vote 90%-100% the same as the Speaker of the House does.
This isn’t an accident. Given the other issues with transparency and autonomy for lawmakers, there’s an unstated assumption in any bill which makes it to the floor of the house for a vote. If the bill is up for a vote, it’s because Speaker DeLeo wants it to pass.
It’s common knowledge on Beacon Hill that the best way to advance your career if you’re a Democrat is to shut up and vote how Bob DeLeo does. Two recent examples really show how toxic the environment is:
In December 2018, Rep. Cory Atkins was giving her farewell address to the House. She did not run for re-election and was leaving the House. This was her last chance to speak before the body.
After enumerating the many honorable statesmen and politicians who had worked in the House chamber since 1638, she contrasted the honorable history of the chamber with the fact that now most people simply check to see the big boards on the wall to see how the Speaker of the House is voting and simply change their votes to match his. She said that rather than needing legislators to sit in their chairs and do that, “There could be an app for that.”
Second, during the January 30th Rules debate in the House, there was an unbelievable occurence. During the vote for amendment #10 on H.2021, the Speaker’s light initially showed a “No” vote, and most democrats began voting against the measure.
What happened next is mind-blowing:
“As is often the case, many Democrats quickly took their cue from DeLeo and Petrolati and voted “no” as well. This is not an uncommon occurrence in the House. In this case it was at least 63 Democrats who played “follow the leader” and voted “no.”
As the board began to fill up with “no” votes, Petrolati apparently took notice and talked into a microphone he didn’t know was on. “It’s a yes?” “Switch ‘em. Yes, yes, yes, yes yes, Mikey,” shouted Petrolati to Division Leader Mike Moran. Suddenly, DeLeo and Petrolati’s votes switched to “yes.” And then all 63 Democrat who had initially voted “no” suddenly switched his or her vote to “yes.””
When asked for comment later by Bob Katzen of the Beacon Hill Roll Call, Rep Russell Holmes had a damning answer for what had just transpired: “Welcome to the House of Representatives. 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.”
10. One Man has All the Power
The Speaker of the House, Bob DeLeo, has all the power in the House. He appoints committee chairs and can fire them at will. He controls the flow of legislation: Whether important bills get a fair hearing, or if they’re killed in some committee.
Every two years, State Reps elect a new Speaker, by majority vote. But Bob DeLeo has retained the position for a decade now due to the extreme risks of opposing him.
Before the public vote on the House Floor, the House Democrats meet together by themselves in a caucus to select one Democrat to unify behind. This ensures multiple Democrats don’t split the vote and end up electing a Republican.
Instead of allowing those Reps to vote by secret ballot, to ensure there’s no fear of retribution, Reps are forced to vote in front of Bob DeLeo in the caucus.
Given all the important ways in which the Speaker can enforce discipline, taking a stand in caucus is just as bad as attacking Bob.
Until these rules, and the general culture of secrecy in the State House are changed, we won’t see important bills passed.
Are you mad about this state of affairs? Then join us and get involved advocating for transparency and accountability at the State House