Hunter Cohen (copy)

Organizers who pushed for rules changes in the Massachusetts House said the campaign sought to hold representatives accountable to voters rather than to House leadership.

In January, as the Massachusetts House faced calls for greater transparency from advocacy groups, Speaker of the House Ron Mariano opted to delay debate over the rules that govern legislative procedures by six months.

Those groups had called for reforms that they said would make it easier for everyday citizens and rank-and-file lawmakers to engage with the legislative process.

Publicizing votes that lawmakers make in committees, they argued, would help constituents hold their elected officials accountable for decisions that currently are often made in secrecy. Releasing bills at least 72 hours prior to a vote, they said, would give residents and advocates greater time to review legislation and contact lawmakers — who themselves would have more time to prepare — before debates begin. Organizers also pushed to reinstate term limits for the speaker of the House, seeking to curb the power that one individual can exert over the body.

The standoff between organizers and Democratic leadership concluded abruptly last week when lawmakers released their 115-page rules proposal on Tuesday and, in a Wednesday vote, rejected the changes backed by advocates. Organizers from Act on Mass, an organization that has pushed for transparency since its founding in 2018, interpreted the less-than-24-hour turnaround between the bill’s release and the debate as a sign that House leadership feared public attention to the showdown.

Erin Leahy, organizing director for Act on Mass, called the “rushed vote” an “attempt to undermine the work of constituent advocates and prevent us from having a seat at the table” in a Tuesday statement. Ella McDonald, communications director for the group, told The Eagle that the proximity of the vote to the July 4 weekend likely hurt the ability for constituents to engage with the issue.

While almost all Republicans voted for the rules changes Wednesday, Democrats — aside from a few who have previously clashed with leadership — overwhelmingly rejected them.

Organizers, however, celebrated an apparent concession from House leaders to publicize the names of representatives who vote against legislation in committees. Mariano himself told the State House News Service that the change “answers the issue of transparency that we’re being hammered about.”

Founded in 2018, Act on Mass is a relatively newer group, and its members are likely to continue organizing for transparency in the near future, McDonald said. Erika Uyterhoeven, one of the group’s co-founders, won election to the House in 2020 and has advocated for transparency from within. Many of those working with Act on Mass played a part in the “Markeyverse,” which many credit with helping U.S. Sen. Ed Markey stave off a 2020 primary challenge from former U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III — a result that some had thought to be an improbable victory when Kennedy first entered the race.

Should Act on Mass continue to grow its campaign, a protracted battle would test the extent to which grassroots groups can sway Democrats typically reluctant to break with House leadership.

If 2020 provides any indication, insurgent candidates seeking to unseat incumbents may make use transparency goals as a campaign tactic in future elections. And organizers will likely continue tying their demands to issues where they believe a lack of transparency has prevented popular legislation from advancing. They say the “legislative graveyard” owing to the rules and power structure in the House includes climate action, health care reform and economic justice.

While legislative rules likely remain an unfamiliar topic to voters who don’t closely follow the Statehouse, a 2020 ballot question on public committee votes suggests that at least one reform sought by advocates is highly popular.

All 16 districts that voted on the question supported it, with the approval rate ranging between 83 percent and 94 percent in those districts.

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.

Statehouse reporter

Danny Jin is the Eagle's Statehouse reporter. A graduate of Williams College, he previously interned at The Eagle and The Christian Science Monitor.