Top 10 Excuses You’ll Hear for Why Your Legislator Voted Against Transparency

Last week, the Massachusetts House voted down three common sense transparency amendments to its rules package.

These amendments were simple good government proposals, requiring that...

  • Representatives be given a reasonable amount of time to read the final language of any bill they’re voting on
  • Representatives be given a reasonable amount of time to read any amendment submitted on the floor that they’ll be voting on
  • Hearing testimony (for/against) a bill and all votes taken in committee to be publicly available.

Yet they all failed, as most rank-and-file Democrats voted with House Leadership against them.

If you've reached out to your representatives since, they've probably given you a number of excuses. Spoiler: They're not very good ones.

Excuses.jpg

(1)  “Requiring more time for Legislators to read bills would just create unnecessary delays. my constituents routinely tell me that we need to be doing more.”

The slow pace of legislative progress in the House is a confounding and deliberate choice--of legislators’ (and especially House Leadership’s) own making. Leadership sets the agenda and the pace: Hearings that take months to be scheduled, repeatedly missed deadlines for reporting bills out of committee, and a final month of a 2-year session packed with a flurry of  major bills. This is all by choice, and not out of necessity (recall the lightning speed with which the legislature drafted, debated, passed the “Upskirting” bill). There is no reason they can’t start the real work three days earlier. Better yet, they could start a year and a half earlier and not find themselves in such a time crunch at the end.

(2)  “By a time a bill comes to the floor, there has been a tremendous amount of public input already. So giving more time for experts, advocates, and the public to read it is just superfluous!”  

This is a loose interpretation of the word “public.” The drafting of a bill happens behind closed doors, which only high-ranking legislators and well-financed lobbyists can get behind. Even rank and file legislators do not have access to this process, and there is no record of whose input is actually being incorporated. It is important for experts, advocates, and constituents to be able to offer input as well.

(3)  “This would create an opportunity for obstruction. A Republican state rep like Jim Lyons could file amendment after amendment, clogging up the process and taking days of our time.”

First of all, Jim Lyons was defeated last November. That point aside, the uninformed chaos of floor amendments could be avoided if amendments were filed well in advance of debate and voting. Moreover, if a legislator were seeking to be obstructive, there is already a backstop: the House routinely suspends its own rules anyway, and it would just need an (easily attainable) 2/3 majority to do so. Amendment #2 would have required that this suspension be done by a roll call vote, providing a public record of who judged the amendments to be gratuitous and unworthy of a serious reading, but it would still be perfectly possible.

(4)  “This is a solution in search of a problem. We already have enough time to read what we’re voting on.”

Last year, the House voted to authorize the creation of community benefit districts the very same day the bill was reported out of House Ways & Means Committee. The bill would have let wealthy property owners in residential and commercial areas impose taxes on their neighbors and privatize public spaces. Many members had no idea what they were voting on, having been given favorable talking points but few details. Only after the House passed the bill were organizations like the ACLU, Common Cause, the NAACP, and the Mass Law Reform Institute able to rally the public to action.

The “Grand Bargain” deal passed by the Legislature last summer (in order to avoid a $15 minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, and a sales tax reduction being on the November ballot ) was voted on the very same day it was reported out of the House Ways & Means Committee - indeed, just one hour after activists from the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, which was behind the $15 minimum wage and paid leave ballot questions, were given the language and well before the 100+ group coalition had finished reading and debating it.

In both cases, the rule granting representatives 24 hours to read a bill was suspended, and this was not because legislators had all finished reading. Indeed, even by extending the window to 72 hours, the House could still suspend the requirement; however, Amendment #1 would again require them to do so by roll call, meaning representatives would have to justify to their constituents why they felt such a suspension was appropriate.

(5)  “Committees should be able to set their own rules, and wouldn’t these rules cause an undue burden for already overworked and underpaid staff?”

The House Rules *already* set standards by which committees must operate. Requiring two additional steps of transparency - the publication of testimony and the publication of committee votes - is fully in line with that. Establishing basic parameters for a committee is not undue interference with its operation.

Moreover, in January 2017, the Massachusetts Legislature voted for a pay hike that increased the pay, stipends, and office expense budgets of committee chairmen. It is fully within their ability to increase the pay of their staff; indeed, they should.

(6)  “All hearing testimony is already public.”

Sure. But very difficult to participate in and to access.

Yes, anyone who is able to come to downtown Boston to attend a hearing in the middle of the workday is able to listen to the testimony. That is no substitute for publishing submitted testimony online, like Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Ohio, Oregon, and Wisconsin do.

Furthermore, a great deal of testimony is submitted in writing - in fact, the committees encourage it. Even representatives who are not members of the committee have been denied access to this testimony by some committees. If even rank and file legislators can’t get it, experts, advocates, and the public certainly can’t.

(7)  “All of my votes are already public.”

Ha! First of all, publicly recorded floor votes are VERY, VERY DIFFICULT TO FIND especially on the House side. (For more on this issue, check out our Scorecard website FAQs).

But we’re not talking about floor votes; we’re talking about committee votes. And those are not actually available online.  

(8)  “I’m new here, and who am I to say how the chamber should operate? Isn’t that presumptuous?”

So House Leadership has convinced you of their power and the absence of yours. Interesting, don’t you think?

The Legislature does not belong to the Speaker, the Majority Leader, or any other member of House Leadership. It belongs to the people. It is only to their constituents that legislators are accountable because their constituents are the ones who elected - and will decide whether to re-elect - them.  

(9)  “I’m playing a long game. If I vote for this, then I’ll end up on the Speaker’s bad side, and I won’t be able to push any of the priorities that we both care about.”

Many representatives have been saying this for years. But given how important bills keep hitting the same roadblocks session after session, the strategy of going along to get along is certainly not a proven winner. The only reason the Speaker has that kind of control in the first place is the lack of transparency and accountability inherent in the House’s standard practices. The only way to fix structural problems is with changes in structure, and your constituents will certainly have your back.

(10) “But this will mean I’ll just get more calls from constituents.”

Yes, that is called democracy.

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Showing 8 reactions


commented 2019-02-09 17:13:45 -0500 · Flag
@HarmonyWu: Heh — I appreciate the clarification.

I see the similarity you mean. I’m thinking of something more tactical — concrete and specific — than the impression #9 leaves me. There are those who simply don’t want to rock the boat, and that’s different from what I mean.

A proposal might come forward to, for example, dramatically raise the capital gains (long and short) tax rate and simultaneously raise the personal exemption on those gains, so that only the very wealthy are hit by the increase.

The current leadership would surely oppose such a measure (it was part of the package that Deval Patrick proposed and that Mr. DeLeo shot down). It’s easy to imagine that measure failing to get a majority on its first attempt.

I’m saying that a legislator might conclude that such a measure was still worth opposing the leadership for, because the issue is important enough (especially to constituents) that it’s worth fighting for. The three issues we’re talking about here do not, in my opinion, rise to that level of importance.

I’m therefore talking about a different calculation from #9. I’m talking about a legislator who knows that a bill will fail and who then has to decide whether or not to support it anyway.

It looks to me as though this is the most common scenario we see in today’s MA legislature, and I think it therefore belongs on this list.
commented 2019-02-09 17:12:01 -0500 · Flag
Many apologies for that confusing mistake
commented 2019-02-09 16:56:35 -0500 · Flag
ha, @Tom: I meant #9. I am used to countdown lists, and so I associated the next to last item with #2. But it’s #9.

So, yes, I acknowledge the dynamic you describe, and wonder what you think of #9.
commented 2019-02-08 15:43:23 -0500 · Flag
@ “Isn’t that reason #2?”

Not in the way that I understand #2. That excuse has to do with public comment on the bill, and that’s not at all what I’m talking about.

Mine is more along the lines of “If you attempt to assassinate the king, don’t fail”.

These three measures were NEVER going to pass. Pretty much everybody knew that.

Once it’s clear that a measure doesn’t have the votes to become law, and once it’s clear that leadership opposes the measure, then voting for it anyway accomplishes nothing except alienating the leadership.

The dynamic I’m describing (perhaps unclearly) has nothing to do with public input.
commented 2019-02-08 14:42:32 -0500 · Flag
Tom, isn’t that reason #2?
commented 2019-02-08 11:50:04 -0500 · Flag
Meh. You don’t mention the obvious and most important reason. These three bills were still-born and NEVER had any chance of passage, for a long list of reasons.

A vote in favor of any one of these would therefore serve only to attract the hostile attention of Mr. DeLeo and his cronies. There is a long list of other legislative priorities that are more important.

Legislators, especially newly elected legislators, quite legitimately choose to save their powder for battles that they have a chance of winning or that, in losing, are more worth the fight.
commented 2019-02-04 19:24:33 -0500 · Flag
My state rep’s vote against the “speaker for life” amendment #31 (Roll call 16) to restore a limit of no more than 8 consecutive years on who may hold the speakership is deeply concerning. I agree with the opponents of this amendment on the general issue of term limits – that we have them and they are called elections. But in the case of the speaker of the house, unless I or any of your constituents, move to a community in the 19th Suffolk District, we are powerless to vote against Rep. DeLeo. Only our elected state representatives have a say in who will be speaker and for how long.

The speakership of the Massachusetts House is one of the most powerful if not the most powerful in the nation. Rep. DeLeo has so much authority that under his tenure, the House has been run less democratically and more dictatorially. DeLeo decides everything from committee assignments of the rank and file to which bills will appear on the floor for debate and when – a situation that has made the committee process almost irrelevant. Bills no longer reach the floor for debate and votes because the committee believes they have merit but rather because the speaker wants them to reach the floor for any number of reasons. This situation is very unhealthy for the kind of representative democracy that my state rep’s sons are taught in school is supposed to exist. Too much power concentrated in the speakership creates a culture that makes things unpleasant for any dissenting voices or those who disagree with leadership. Instead of debate we get predetermined outcomes.
commented 2019-02-04 19:21:55 -0500 · Flag
My state rep’s argument against supporting amendment # 2 (Roll call #3) does not hold water. She wrote that she is “worried about further delay in the legislative process,” yet the data shows that the legislative process is being slowed by a dramatic fall off in the number of full formal sessions and a huge drop in the number of recorded roll call votes – not by giving legislators and your constituents an extra half hour of time to review amendments. Since the mid-1980s, the amount of time the House has spent in session, and the number of issues decided through roll calls, have plunged. In 1985-86, House members were in session for a total of 1,030 hours – about 10 hours per week and conducted 1,655 roll calls. By 2009-10, the House was meeting on average only five hours a week and the number of roll calls had declined 70 percent, to just 513. In the 2017-18 House session, only 485 roll calls were taken. These shifts have occurred while the salary for legislators has increased over the years.
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