How We Can Fix Beacon Hill

In the past several months Massachusetts citizens have witnessed the indictment of their third consecutive speaker of the House, learned of decades of pension system abuse, observed numerous lobbying scandals, and watched a senator allegedly stuff a bribe into her bra. It doesn’t take much digging to discover that issues such as these are not unique to this legislative session, but are merely symptoms of the broader disease — the absence of deliberative, representative democracy in the Legislature.

How did it get this way? Sixty years of single-party domination has allowed a slow, steady, incremental accumulation of power within the office of the House speaker and Senate president. Today, these two people control all leadership and committee chair appointments, thereby controlling the extra pay these positions receive.

They also control all committee appointments, drafting of their chamber’s rules, the daily schedule, when (and if) bills come out of committee, and whether a bill ever sees a vote on the floor. When a bill does make it to the floor for a vote, it often happens within hours after it is reported out of committee.

As a result, no legislators, regardless of their work ethic or staff size, can possibly review what’s in the legislation upon which they are being asked to vote.

As if all this were not enough, the speaker and president control members’ office assignments, budgets and staff size, where members sit in the chamber, where they park, how much party PAC money they receive, and so on. If legislators do not ‘go along to get along,’ they find themselves, quite literally, in the basement, enduring the retribution that comes with failing to follow their chamber’s leader.

Over the past five decades there have been several attempts to change the way the Legislature operates, including the efforts of Gov. Dukakis and Rep. Barney Frank in the 1960s, and Rep. George Kevarian’s floor revolt in 1983 when Speaker Tom McGee was overthrown. These efforts had a minor impact for a short period. Ultimately, though, the Legislature writes its rules, waives them as it sees fit, and exempts itself from the laws that would make members act otherwise.

So how do we restore the Legislature to the deliberative, representative, democratic institution that the framers of the world’s oldest continuously functioning constitution intended?

Last month, a citizen-driven petition for a constitutional amendment was certified by the Massachusetts attorney general, and a gras-roots signature drive, organized by FixBeaconHill.com, is now underway.

The proposed amendment seeks to reform the Legislature by requiring the speaker of the House and Senate president to be elected by secret ballot, just as all legislators are elected by us; allowing the speaker and the Senate president to each appoint four leadership positions; requiring both bodies to elect, by secret ballot, a Committee on Committees, which serves to assign committee membership, establish rules for the chamber, establish a consistent formula for members’ budgets, and assign members’ offices; requiring all committees to elect their own chairman, keep minutes, record all votes, and make such records available to the public; precluding the Legislature from exempting itself from the Massachusetts Open Meeting Laws; and requiring the House and Senate to produce and publish line-item budgets for the operation of their respective chambers.

Too often, hardworking and committed lawmakers are unable to effect change because of the concentration of power at the top. This amendment would allow all 200 legislators to speak their minds in the best interest of their constituents and the entire Commonwealth, without fear of retribution.

Isn’t it time to fix Beacon Hill?

Chris McKeown is founder ofFixBeaconHill.com

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