By Larry Pareles
The opinions expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect opinions or positions held by Indivisible Northampton.
As you know, in recent months thousands of constituents, some of the largest advocacy organizations, labor unions and media outlets organized a people-powered campaignto make the State House more transparent through rules reform. These reforms will make the State House more accessible and more responsive to the people.
The debate on changing the House rules was delayed until summer, but committees are setting their own rules now. The Senate passed a joint rules package last week that included public committee votes and testimony, and sent that to the House. The Senate already reports their votes publicly.
Since many important decisions are made in the House/Senate joint committees, making these votes public would be a major step in improving the legislative process. However, on February 24, the House rejected the Senate’s rules about joint committee votes being made public. An amendment to restore the changes was offered, but the House rejected it.
These measures to improve legislative transparency are extremely popular with constituents who expressed more than 90% support in recent voting in 19 districts recently, but the House Leadership was vocal in its opposition and chose to criticize constituents’ naivete instead.
Here’s how some constituents reacted on Twitter soon after the vote:
The version of the joint committee rules approved by the House by a 128-31 vote:
- keeps a notice requirement for committee hearings at 3 days, instead of the 7 days proposed by the Senate
- makes public only the names of committee members who vote against favorably reporting a bill, unlike the Senate version which reports all votes.
- Will not allow sharing of copies of public testimony (with reasonable exceptions) upon request.
In support of changing the rules, Rep. Erica Uyterhoeven (27th Middlesex) said, “You are saying that we have to do our work behind closed doors, and I don’t believe that is the case. I believe that is an unfortunate and sometimes elitist argument to say that we cannot show our votes to our constituents and our voters. We do not have a strong democracy by voting behind closed doors.”
Ryan Daulton from Act on Mass wrote: “It’s shocking that many of the arguments against the amendment blamed constituents for our lack of understanding of how the State House functions when that’s precisely what we are asking for: to stop being shut out of the legislative process.”
Among the arguments made against having votes and testimony made public were that the legislators know the best ways to get their work done, that they need more “flexibility” behind closed doors, and that posting many pages of testimony would overtax their staffs.
The Senate next decides how to handle the House’s changes: whether to accept them, amend them, or start a conference to work out a compromise (most likely in private).
Meanwhile, activists working for increased transparency in the House plan to ramp up their campaign for these rule changes in the spring before the House votes on their rules in July.
Writing Letters to the Editor for your local papers is a good way to keep this discussion open.
Keep informed at Act On Mass.