House rules debate could get lively

The Massachusetts House on Wednesday is expected to vote on the rules it will operate under the next two years, but don’t expect the usual ho-hum debate.

A group of progressive dissenters are planning to use the rules to challenge the House’s power structure, a Republican is calling for term limits and the right for legislative aides to unionize, and the speaker’s team is making some modifications to the rules the House has used in the past.

Nancy Brumback, legislative director for the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, sent out an email Tuesday to the organization’s 3,500 members, urging them to call their lawmakers to support six of the rules changes being sought by the progressive band of lawmakers.

“Trust in government relies on transparency, open debate, and accountability. The legislative process in the Massachusetts State House has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few.

Popular bills with the support of a majority of legislators fail to make it to the floor for open debate and vote,” the League wrote in its email. “When bills get to the floor, debate can be minimal and votes are frequently tallied without a recorded roll call.”

Rep. Tami Gouveia, an Acton Democrat in her first year, was among the eight members of her party to vote “present” when Rep. Robert DeLeo stood for reelection as speaker on January 2. Gouveia said she plans to support a raft of amendments backed by Watertown Democrat Rep. Jonathan Hecht, who has clashed publicly with DeLeo in the past and been stripped of a vice chairmanship.

“I think the elections in 2018 really in some ways demonstrated that voters are paying attention and are digging into the details a little bit more,” Gouveia said. “I think people care about our democracy.”

Rep. Russell Holmes, Democrat of Boston, who has made his disdain for the speaker’s leadership style very public and lost a committee vice chairmanship as a result, said he will also be pushing for the rules changes.

“What sticks out is still the lack of distribution of influence and power in the building. The rules have not changed much in that everything still sums up and rolls up into leadership,” said Holmes. “On all votes, the leadership wants conformity, but there’s a particular desire to have all the folks in the Democratic caucus to vote with the House leadership with the rules.”

Hecht’s proposed changes to House rules would give members at least three days to review a bill before voting on it on the floor and 30 minutes to review amendments filed during deliberations. Another of Hecht’s amendments would change the rules that provide for dislodging a bill from certain committees, such as the House Committee on Ways and Means, where sundry bills come to a final resting place every session.

Under Hecht’s proposal, 40 members – a quarter of the House – could petition to dislodge a bill from Ways and Means, Bills in Third Reading, or the Rules Committee, triggering a vote in the next formal session on whether to discharge the bill from committee. If a majority voted in favor of discharge, the bill would be placed on the House calendar for the next session.

Disagreement over DeLeo’s style of leadership brings together backbench Democrats and Republicans who feel left out of the decision-making process in the House. That can make for some odd groupings, as when some of the most liberal Democrats signed onto Rep. Geoff Diehl’s failed attempt in 2015 to restore term limits to the speakership.

Rep. Shawn Dooley, a Norfolk Republican, has filed two rules amendments (along with legislation) this year, one that would allow legislative aides to unionize and another placing a 10-year term limit on legislative leadership positions, including speaker, majority leader, committee chairs, and even his party’s own minority leader. “We have too much concentration of power on Beacon Hill,” he said.

Dooley said he filed the unionization measure in response to the allegations of sexual harassment and nondisclosure agreements that roiled the House last year. “It goes back to the original motivation behind unions – to protect workers from unsafe work environments,” he said. “As a Republican, it’s a little bit out there, pushing the creation of a union. In the end, though, I think it’s just better for employees.”

The House rules package, sponsored this year by Rep. William Galvin, chairman of the temporary rules committee, includes several changes to the code that has loosely guided the House in prior sessions.

Whereas the rules in prior sessions referred to House members with male-gendered pronouns, the updated rules swap in the gender-neutral plural pronoun of “their” instead of he or his. Instead of “His Excellency the Governor,” it’s now “Their Excellency the Governor.”

Instead of referring to the Speaker pro Tempore (a position currently held by Rep. Patricia Haddad of Somerset) as he, the rules will now refer to the holder of the position as “them.”

Galvin’s order also sets out new requirements for non-binding resolutions before the House, prohibiting statements of ideology or policy, and barring congratulatory resolutions for marriages younger than 50 years, anniversaries of less than 20 years, or the birthdays of individuals under the age of 80. Like other rules, the new rule around resolutions could be suspended with unanimous consent of the members present.

The order would also establish new mandates for legislative member organizations – groups of lawmakers organized around a particular cause who use state resources such as staff time – requiring them to register with the Rules Committee and affirm that state resources will not be used for political purposes.

The new rules tweak the procedure enabling members to seek confidential legal opinions from House counsel or the Ethics Committee, specifying that those requests and the opinions themselves be made in writing.

In addition to proposing new rules for the House, Galvin has also sponsored a proposal for the joint rules that govern the House and Senate, which the Senate would need to agree to if they are to take effect. Those rules can be a sticking point between the two branches. Senate President Karen Spilka said Monday that committee assignments would follow adoption of the joint rules. The Senate is planning its rules debate for Thursday.

One major change in the joint rules proposal would append a new way of lawmaking to the recent requirement barring the establishment of House-Senate conference committees in the final couple weeks before the end of formal sessions – often a period of intense legislative horse-trading a few months before the biennial election. Under the proposal, if one of the branches does not act on concurring in the appointment of a conference committee, that branch would forfeit its previous vote on legislation and concur on the action taken by the other branch.

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