Democracy requires government of, by and for the people.
In Massachusetts, we elect our state legislators and send them to Beacon Hill, but we are deprived of basic knowledge about how our representatives are actually representing us. That needs to change, and an upcoming state House of Representatives vote on its rules gives lawmakers a chance to stand up for the transparency their constituents deserve that has too long been denied.
As the House readies to vote on the rules governing its upcoming session, some are pressing for a more accountable legislative process. Among the strongest voices in this call is the People’s House coalition, a collection of advocacy groups mounting a public pressure campaign to “change the broken, anti-democratic rules.”
The group demands the House release bills at least 72 hours before a vote, reinstate term limits for the speaker of the House and, most importantly, make all committee votes public.
People’s House organizers describe these asks as both “modest” and “common sense” — and they’re correct. Massachusetts is arguably the cradle of American democracy, with the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, drafted in 1780 by John Adams, being the oldest functioning written document of its kind in the world. Yet this legacy is undercut by the state government’s secrecy as it stands today, with its impermeability to its own citizens ranking among the worst in the nation. Massachusetts, for example, is one of only four states where the Legislature is exempt from the open records law, meaning the rules meant to ensure accountability and public knowledge of our leaders’ actions don’t apply to our state lawmakers when they’re performing the duties for which voters hired them.
The Eagle editorial board has noted previously that the commonwealth’s issues with governmental opacity include but are not limited to the General Court. As the state House approaches its rules vote early this month, however, it would indeed be a good if modest step to begin allowing Bay Staters a clearer view of their representatives’ actions and positions on legislative decisions. The idea that voters can’t even know how their legislators stand on bills in the crucial committee stage is a shameful affront to the commonwealth’s deep democratic legacy.
Politicians rarely welcome more scrutiny of their job performance, and as such many state legislators have pushed back against the prospect of giving their constituents a closer look at Beacon Hill business.
In February, the House voted 122-36 to reject an amendment with similar rule changes as the ones proposed by The People’s House and other advocates. Among the backers of keeping matters like committee votes and testimony unavailable to the public were all four members of the Berkshire delegation.
Those who oppose keeping voters in the know often say that keeping committee votes and other legislative proceedings under wraps is necessary for facilitating debate and hammering out deals, and that this process does not inherently present a transparency issue.
We disagree. We, the people, have sent these lawmakers to do a job, and the idea that some of the most important and consequential parts of that job are shrouded in secrecy undermines the foundations of good governance and basic accountability. If lawmakers see those principles as diametrically opposed to doing their due diligence, we don’t need to eschew more transparency in one of the opaquest state governments in the country — we need lawmakers who realize the value and necessity of those principles to democracy.
This should be a bipartisan issue. The People’s House coalition frames the current House rules as a murky cover for slow-walking what those advocates see as important progressive legislation on matters like climate change and health care. It’s worth noting, though, that the February doomed vote on similar rule changes included a vast majority of the House’s Republican minority members voting in favor of moving to the less-secretive new rules.
House Republicans and the People’s House likely share little in the way of ideology. At its core, this issue is, or should be, above politics. It’s about prioritizing equipping voters to hold politicians accountable over keeping those politicians’ machinations secret.
We urge the Berkshire delegation and all members of the state House of Representatives to affirm these priorities by voting to make the House a more transparent institution.