If You Want a Different Outcome, You Need to Change the Rules of the Game

The Massachusetts General Court is the second oldest deliberative body of the world. It’s time for it to start living up to such a stature.

Opaque processes and procedures are the standard operating procedure in the Legislature, leaving the public—and even many legislators—in the dark while monied interests exert sway behind closed doors. And an over-centralization of power encourages a culture of quiescence and retaliation, discouraging open debate on major issues—a problem especially acute in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Real reform will be impossible without changes to both rules and norms.

And with the MA House set to vote on its rules for the 191st legislative session tomorrow, we have a few good ideas about measures the House could adopt.

(1) Read What You’re Voting On

PROBLEM: When legislators don’t have the time to do their due diligence, bad legislation can easily slip through. Take, for example, the House’s vote last year on a bill authorizing what’s called “community benefit districts.” That bill would have enabled wealthy property owners to essentially “own” public spaces and impose fees on other property owners in the district with or without their approval, all with zero safeguards for civil liberties and equal access. Representatives only learned that a vote was going to take place on the bill the day of the vote itself, providing no time for legislators to read the fine print or consult with experts. The result? It sailed through almost unanimously, with representatives only realizing what they actually voted on afterwards.

SOLUTION: Bills should be made available to House members and the public, in the form in which they were most recently reported from committee, at least 72 hours (three days) before being considered on the floor. Legislators, experts, advocates, and engaged community members then have the opportunity to more thoroughly evaluate a bill, and legislators will better understand what they are actually voting on.

The same standard – read what you’re voting on – should also apply to amendments. When a bill is being considered, representatives should get at least 30 minutes to review the text of any new amendment before having to vote on it.


(2) Know What You’re Voting On – and Who’s Behind the Bill

PROBLEM: Legislators don’t have the staff (or time) to attend every single hearing on every single bill, and can thus be left with only a cursory understanding of what a bill does and who the main forces behind it are.

Hearings, at least, are public, unlike much of the legislative process. When negotiations happen behind closed doors, other legislators and the public are left in the dark about how a bill is changed and who is lobbying for those changes. Take, for example, the case in 2017 when the House Ways & Means Committee watered down a bill to protect pregnant women in the workplace – with no legislator or lobby group taking ownership of the change.

SOLUTION: Committee staff are already doing a lot of work compiling information on a bill, so that information should be made available to all legislators and the public. As is the norm in a number of other state legislatures, bills reported out of an “issue area” committee should be accompanied by substantive reports with a) a summary of the arguments advanced pro/con at the bill hearing and in written testimony submitted; b) a list of organizations and individuals that testified pro/con on the bill; c) a list of organizations and individuals that met or otherwise communicated with the Committee Leadership. And when a bill gets reported out of a committee like Ways & Means or Third Reading, those reports should also include an explanation of any changes made to the bill.


(3) Show Your Vote

PROBLEM: Of the thousands of bills that get filed at the start of a session, comparatively few get passed in either chamber, let alone being signed into law. Most bills end up dying in the committee stage – whether voted down, sent to further study (i.e., indefinitely tabled – the study never happens), or discharged to another committee (where they then flounder). When a bill dies in committee, all legislators are left with clean hands, since no recorded vote is made available for the decision. Indeed, the House evades its own stated rules around making these recorded votes available by polling votes electronically instead of in person. This leaves legislators outside of the committee—and the public—in the dark about what is happening on important pieces of legislation. 

SOLUTION: The state legislatures in a majority of US states publish roll call votes from committees online, and so should ours. A recorded vote should be taken (and published) whenever a committee makes a decision, whether to give a bill a favorable/negative report, “send it to further study,” or discharge it.


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