March 2018 Amherst Bulletin Column: Challenges in Moving the House to Action

March 2018 Column: Challenges in Moving the House to Action

            This month there was a bit of contentious debate in a Massachusetts House session.

            This may sound normal, but in fact debate is rare. It highlighted how much of our process may need explaining, as it differs from what you might expect.

            I envision a Legislature that meets frequently in person, addressing every matter before it with open debate and many votes of the full membership, based on regular parliamentary procedure. In reality, we meet in person infrequently and only for the most significant or controversial bills. Everything minor is dealt with during “informal sessions,” which are lightly attended and involve no actual voting. Committees hold public hearings on every bill, but beyond attending those, committee members have no responsibilities or influence relative to legislation.

            Bills are given a vote only if they are guaranteed to pass, and here’s the key point: for a bill to get a vote does not rely on gaining a majority of representatives’ support, but on a far more nebulous process of getting an idea on the agenda. Colleagues from other states tell me they vote on every single bill each session. If we did that, passing a bill would be simple: lobby fellow representatives until a majority had pledged their “yes” votes.

            Instead, Massachusetts has a culture against taking action. The least controversial matters, such as naming a bridge as I did last year, can be shepherded through committees by their sponsor and passed, usually with an informal voice vote. But anything significant tends to get on the agenda only in response to some external pressure.

            For instance, last year we passed a great bill guaranteeing free access to contraception for women, which was brought up in response to national efforts to repeal Obamacare.

            But in the same way, in response to rhetoric spurred by national partisan polarization, a common-sense bill on immigration enforcement was pulled at the last minute and never got a vote.

            Sometimes, press attention or advocacy campaigns get a topic on the minds of enough legislators that our legislative leadership decides to take up a bill on that topic. This happened with criminal justice reform, the most significant bill we passed in 2017.

            Once the speaker announces we are doing a given bill, there is a defined process. We can advocate with the committee chair as the bill is crafted from language that many folks had introduced in standalone legislation.

            After the committee releases its version, we can file amendments and negotiate them with leadership. Many of us do file amendments. Republican representatives tend to file some for every single bill, and they often get them — proportionally much more than Democrats.

            After we pass the bill, we can advocate with the Senate to keep provisions in their version, and then with the conference committee that will negotiate differences to form the final bill.

            However, before leadership announces that we will take up a topic, there is no formal process. Herein lies the challenge for me as a legislator and you as an advocate. How do we get a topic on the agenda?

            No one legislator can do it, even for smaller ideas — not even the speaker, who responds to whatever consensus he perceives among representatives, advocates, business groups and the press.

            I have ideas for how to get topics on the agenda. I recently started a Clean Energy Caucus to get energy on legislators’ minds, as the Harm Reduction Caucus did with criminal justice reform. But success is uncertain, so much of the time we set the groundwork and wait for opportunities to come along.

            Recent shootings have put some small regulations about guns on the agenda. We’re finally talking a bit about climate change since we’ve canceled House sessions several weeks in a row due to storms battering our coast.

            But it shouldn’t take a tragedy or disaster to get bold and sensible policy on the agenda. That’s why we all need to be aware of how the system currently works, and how we can affect it.

            We can lobby representatives to support a bill, but more importantly we can find the few representatives who will be proactive on that topic (and each of us can have only a few proactive priorities).

            We can form coalitions of advocacy organizations and business groups, and we can use columns and strategic actions to garner press attention.

            In such ways, we can create the external pressures that will move the Massachusetts House to action.

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Photo and book images by Violet Kitchen, Picturing Policy posts by Violet Kitchen and Kaley Davis.