As a state that ranks 47th out of 50 for political transparency, Massachusetts is already infamous for doing business behind closed doors. But despite growing calls from residents and activist groups for a more open process, legislators on Beacon Hill passed a rules package last week that will deceptively conceal voting records and burden the public with even more opaque procedures.
One proposal in the package would have ensured that legislators and the public have at least 48 hours to read a bill before it’s brought up for a vote. Many Massachusetts bills often reach legislators’ desks just a few hours before the vote, giving them almost no time to file amendments. Ironically, the rules package itself was revealed less than 4 hours before the deadline to file amendments. But business will continue as usual on Beacon Hill after the amendment to require a 48-hour interim period failed miserably in a 39-119 vote.
The legislature also scratched an amendment to reveal how most lawmakers vote on legislation in committee. Now, only committee members who vote “no” on a bill will be identified by name. The rest of the votes, including those who vote “yes” or abstain from voting, will be bundled into a single aggregate number, thus leaving those politicians free from public criticism. As a result, Massachusetts voters will have even less of an ability to hold their other representatives accountable for their support bills.
Perhaps the most straightforward of the failed amendments was one aimed at reinstituting a 4-term limit for the Speaker of the House. Those who opposed term limits pathetically argued that they would “discriminate” against the Speaker (since no one else faces term limits) or that they’re undemocratic (since legislators would no longer be able to choose whomever they want for Speaker at any time). But the failure of the term limits amendment in a 35-125 vote reflects the powerful grip of the legislative leadership over the vast majority of its members. Establishment politicians, particularly Speaker Ron Mariano, opposed all of these amendments to rid the Massachusetts legislature of its secretive, top-down procedures. But, for low-ranking representatives, voting for transparency was simply not worth the cost of future retaliation from the people at the top.
Thanks to the cowardice of freshman legislators who ran on transparency but voted with the establishment, not much will change in the Massachusetts legislature. Even with dozens of protestors on the capitol steps, an open process will once again take a backseat to the personal interests of lawmakers who want to minimize accountability and stay in power.