Withdrawal: Never an Effective Strategy

If we actually had mandatory sex ed in MA, everyone would know that withdrawal is not effective. As it stands, it remains one of the most popular strategies in the Massachusetts Legislature. Legislators file amendments only to withdraw them without discussion or debate.

If you were paying attention to the Senate budget debate last week or the House budget debate last month (You probably weren’t! There’s a lot going on!), then you may have noticed such a lack of robust debate or contentious votes.

Of the 36 recorded votes taken by the State Senate, 25 were unanimous. Most others just had one or two dissenting votes. Hardly controversial stuff.

Of the 15 recorded votes taken by the House, 10 were unanimous, and another 3 just had one dissenting vote.

Here at Progressive Massachusetts, we’re big fans of recorded votes. Ironically, such unanimity is a reason why a recorded vote could actually not be necessary in a given circumstance. If everyone agrees on a few extra thousand dollars for a good program, a recorded vote is just fodder for a press release, rather than a basis for real accountability.

Several senators spoke on the Senate floor about the need for new revenue (due credit to Senators Jamie Eldridge, Sonia Chang-Diaz, Jo Comerford, and Becca Rausch), but there were no votes about raising additional revenue. And in the House, there was even less discussion--and again no votes.

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If a budget is a statement of values, why is there so little debate?

One of the reasons is that most of the amendments that would truly raise moral issues about the budget (the lack of revenue, insufficient funding in key programs, etc.) get withdrawn, or, in the House side, they get “consolidated” and hollowed out of all content (more on the “consolidation” process another day).

This issue isn’t unique to the budget, either. When the Legislature takes up major bills, many of the amendments get withdrawn without discussion or debate (let alone vote).

 

Just check out the four examples from last session below.

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So why would a legislator withdraw an amendment?

There are three common reasons:

  1. Pressure from colleagues
  2. Pressure from Leadership
  3. Fear of a bad message if an amendment were to fail

(1) and (2) both stem from the same root: the fact that most legislators don’t want to be put on record. Having recorded votes means that they have to take a side on sometimes controversial issues, and that means that at least some of their constituents will be unhappy. Maybe they are more progressive than their district and afraid of getting calls from rabid right-wingers. Much more likely they are much more conservative than their district and don’t want constituents contented with an image of Massachusetts’s liberalism to know. And they will press upon an amendment’s filers to make sure that no vote happens.

Regarding (2), Leadership can often promise a real debate later or a bit of extra funding for a favored program now (or threaten loss of key perks) to get a legislator to withdraw an amendment. For decades, legislators have been withdrawing righteous amendments while promises from leadership have gone unfulfilled. And yet, progressive legislators keep falling for the same trick.

(2) and (3) also stem from a misunderstanding of how power works. Too many legislators see power only from the lens of the Golden Dome. But any legislator’s power ultimately comes from their constituents. And their constituents want to see them be champions. Their constituents want well-funded schools, well-funded public transit, clean water and air, sound investments in all kinds of infrastructure, etc., etc. Their constituents probably think Massachusetts is a liberal bastion, and so we should make it just that. If legislators take hard votes, then their constituents will have their backs. And if a vote for popular progressive policy were to fail, their constituents aren’t going to turn their backs on the policy; they will know which legislators to target and to pressure and know how to organize for the next fight. Because, to be short, that’s how politics works.


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