Rules debate spirited, but almost nothing changes
An influx of new members is changing the atmosphere of the House chamber, but in the first deliberations of the 2019-2020 session on Wednesday, Speaker Robert DeLeo and his Democratic backers made sure the chamber’s rules remained the same.
In the debate over a set of rules to govern the chamber, dissenting Democrats and Republicans pitched a range of different proposals with a general theme of extending the opportunities for review and public input on legislation. But the proposals were shot down by the majority Democrats who described those efforts as well-meaning but ill-advised measures that would jam up the legislative process.
“I think it’s entirely appropriate that we have the flexibility to do the people’s business,” said Rep. Joseph Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat, speaking for the majority.
The closest vote was the first one taken up where 23 Democrats joined with all 32 Republicans in favor of an amendment filed by Rep. Jonathan Hecht of Watertown to extend the time period to review bills before they are taken up by the House. That bid was defeated as 102 Democrats and independent Rep. Susannah Whipps of Athol voted against it.
New lawmakers or lawmakers entering their second term accounted for most of the 23 Democratic votes in favor of Hecht’s amendment. Nearly all of those Democrats who voted for Hecht’s proposal held no chairmanships or leadership positions last session. An exception was Rep. Christopher Markey, a Dartmouth Democrat who was chairman of the Ethics Committee last session and spoke in favor of the idea.
Democratic Reps. Maria Robinson of Framingham, Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton, and Patrick Kearney of Scituate each broke from recent House tradition by giving their maiden speeches – their first addresses to their colleagues in the House chamber – on proposals that went on to defeat. Usually maiden speeches are made on items that are practically guaranteed to receive approval in the House.
Robinson, who like Sabadosa and Kearney, was elected last November, said her constituents are “paying attention to what’s going on at the state level” and they want to “be able to think through all the unintended consequences” of proposals that come before lawmakers.
“This is important. I think it’s very important that we care deeply about our constituents and about how the House operates,” Robinson said.
Rep. John Rogers, a Norwood Democrat who faced off against DeLeo for control of the House a decade ago, proposed re-establishing an eight-year term-limit on the speakership. Attempting to dissuade his colleagues from the idea that political animus was the inspiration for the proposal, Rogers noted that the proposal would apply only to future speakers. He said the rule change would “accelerate the day” when a woman would become speaker of the House.
DeLeo once supported term limits on the speakership, which Rogers noted, but the House did away with that restriction in 2015, allowing DeLeo to remain in the post today, about 10 years after he ascended the rostrum.
“He and I both ran on a platform of term limits for the office of speaker. I defend his right to change his mind. I, however, remain resolute in the fundamental belief this is a necessary restriction on the powers of the speakership,” Rogers said. “If this could empower women who serve in this chamber, then we should adopt this rule.”
Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat, was the first to speak in opposition to the Rogers proposal before it was voted down 43-113.
“It’s the people of our district who decide whether we come back here,” Michlewitz said. “There are no term limits for representative and there should be no term limits for speaker of the House.”
Reps. Joseph Wagner of Chicopee, Sarah Peake of Provincetown, and Ann-Margaret Ferrante of Gloucester all followed, speaking out against the Rogers proposal and the idea of term limits.
“This amendment does not guarantee the election of a woman as speaker of the House,” said Peake. “To frame it in those terms, I find somewhat disturbing.”
A similar proposal that had the potential to create intraparty divisions was submitted and then withdrawn by Rep. Shawn Dooley, a Norfolk Republican. The proposal would have limited the terms of leaders in both parties, along with several committee leadership positions, to no more than 10 years total. North Reading Republican Rep. Brad Jones has held the position of minority leader for well over 15 years.
Jones supports a term limit on the speaker, and noted before the debate got underway that the speaker has much more power than the minority leader. “My position is elected by my caucus, whereas the speaker is the presiding officer in the entire House,” Jones said. “Obviously the speaker has a heck of a lot more power in this building than I do.”
Another amendment filed by Dooley to allow legislative aides to form a union was also shot down.
Kearney urged his new colleagues to reject the use of non-disparagement or non-disclosure agreements between the House and members or employees, explicitly linking those documents to the sexual abuse and harassment exposed by the #metoo movement.
“No victim wants to give up their First Amendment rights, freedom of speech to share their story with their friends, family, and support system,” Kearney said.
But others, including Rep. Claire Cronin of Easton, who was chair of the Judiciary Committee last session, said non-disclosure agreements can be an important tool to protect the privacy of victims and silence perpetrators.
“The idea of banning them all together and not giving victims that opportunity to control what happens to their claim would be wrong,” Cronin said.
“The perpetrator does not get to ask for an NDA. The victim does. It is a victim-centric rule,” said Cambridge Rep. Marjorie Decker before the House overwhelmingly voted down Kearney’s amendment 151-5.
The only change suggested by a member that was adopted was a proposal by Rep. Elizabeth Malia, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, to include in the rules the requirement that the House docket appear online.
Otherwise the new rules were adopted pretty much as they had been submitted by Rep. William Galvin of Canton.
Galvin emphasized how the new rules do away with male-gendered pronouns, replacing them with gender-neutral ones.
“Because of the House legacy of supporting gender equality and the LGBT populations, we made changes that reflect that all the pronouns in the House rules are gender-neutral and genderinclusive,” Galvin said before the debate.
He also explained new rules restricting the subject matter of non-binding resolutions.
“People were getting out of hand with resolutions. Some people were legislating with resolutions. Some people were commemorating someone’s 36th birthday, you know. It just got to the point where a resolution became meaningless, really,” Galvin said.
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