September 2018 Column: What do state election results mean for the Massachusetts House?
Earlier this month, national political attention turned briefly to Massachusetts when a popular, progressive incumbent Member of Congress was ousted in a Democratic primary by a passionate activist promising not only to vote the right way, but to lead movements from her new seat in Congress. However, there’s something to watch at the state level, too: Massachusetts’ chair of the most powerful House committee – Ways and Means – lost his primary election to an activist challenger. Similarly, the second-longest serving member of the House, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus and senior member of the Speaker’s leadership team, also lost his primary. This column muses on why that happened. Like many elections across the country in recent years, these speak of dissatisfaction among active voters. In the case of our Ways and Means Chair, several activist organizations piled on to support his opponent. They hoped to “make an example” of the House leadership because of lack of action on their respective priorities, which ranged from immigration to environmental protection. Certainly the Massachusetts legislature is at a relative low in terms of active policymaking, and much of that has to do with the process and leadership structure. Whether ousting these two particular figures – the two most progressive members of House leadership – will have the activists’ desired result remains to be seen. The House Speaker may appoint new leadership team members who are more to the activists’ liking as a means of placating them. Or he may close ranks and shut out all but the closest insiders from House decision making. At the same time, the current Speaker does not call all the shots – some would say so, but that view ignores a larger culture within the House. (The Senate is similar, though we discuss it less because it is slightly more inclined toward proactive policymaking.) The culture right now requires every decision about what to bring to a vote, what the final content of a bill will be, and what compromises to make with the Governor, business groups, and grassroots organizations to go through the Speaker’s office. It wasn’t always like this – I’ve talked to former Reps who served several decades ago when Speakers had no policy staff, when decisions about the content of bills were left to committee chairs, and when the House operated according to a regular schedule with consistent procedure that individual Reps could use to advance their priorities. (It wasn’t all rosy: the last three Speakers were all convicted of felonies, so by some standards our current leadership is a step up.) This new culture developed slowly, and not solely because of the current Speaker’s leadership style. If the Speaker were acting as a dictator and most Reps seriously wanted a different process, a new Speaker would have been elected long ago. The fact is that almost everyone involved accepts this system: all decisions about bill advancement go through the Speaker’s office because no one else is advancing bills. Most small matters go through “informal sessions” because no one chooses to show up and point out that a quorum is not present. I don’t mean to say that someone necessarily should – I never did, because it wasn’t ever relevant to a particular strategy to get a priority outcome or a better process – but it is useful to acknowledge that legislators do, in theory, have more power than we routinely act on. It is unclear how the wave of new Reps elected in this month’s primary elections will approach this culture. Three beat incumbent Democrats, but many more have campaigned for open seats on similar platforms, exciting voters upset with the lack of action on key issues or riled up by frustrating national politics. Meanwhile, several organizations feel emboldened by their primary election victory and may move on to larger efforts to change either the House process, the House leadership, or both. How they go about promoting process change in parallel with substantive issue advocacy could shape the focus of the 2019-2020 legislative session. And what efforts develop among new and existing Reps, who may feel the need to respond to changing state and national times, will determine what initiatives might succeed. Regardless of which direction it takes, we can expect a continued clamor for change in Massachusetts. This next legislative session will be exciting to watch, but I urge activists in our area to consider what aspects you want to focus on, and to start working on them soon – many outcomes are determined before the session even starts.