Despite a push from government transparency advocates, the Massachusetts House of Representatives appears unshakably intent on shrouding voters’ view of The People’s business.
A proposed package of rules changes would have brought some much-needed openness and accountability: requiring House bills to be released at least 48 hours prior to a vote, full public disclosure of committee votes and reinstated term limits for House speaker. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, lawmakers were not eager to shed more sunlight on their job performance as representatives of their constituents. The House voted against adopting these new rules, with all four members of the Berkshire delegation joining the opposition to a more transparent legislative process.
Massachusetts’ state government has the dubious distinction of being among the most secretive in the nation — an issue The Eagle editorial board has flagged before. While that secrecy abounds beyond the House and even the Legislature, it is hard to think of a more exemplary affront to democracy than denying Bay Staters decent foreknowledge of legislation being teed up and how the representatives that they sent to Beacon Hill vote on those bills in the critical committee phase.
This shady impedance on good governance has rankled democracy advocates across the state, including here in the Berkshires.
“I don’t think it’s a strength to close their doors to scrutiny from their constituents. It looks like backroom politics,” League of Women Voters of Central Berkshire County President Ramelle Pulitzer told The Eagle editorial board. “We need to know if they approved or disapproved of the policies that they’re putting forward onto the floor. I think they would like the same if they were represented.”
Those lawmakers who opted against the move toward greater transparency sought to characterize the rules adopted as a “compromise,” though they’re still far too anemic. Advocates had called for releasing legislation publicly 72 hours ahead of House votes. An amendment that would have been a compromise, requiring only 48 hours, was nixed completely. And while “no” votes in committee will be publicized, the total accounting will remain murky, as representatives can continue to reserve their rights or choose not to vote without having their names publicized.
Releasing legislation only a short time before a vote compromises constituents’ ability to lobby their legislators on bills they care about. It also can hamstring legislators themselves, particularly on important legislation that can sometimes be hundreds of pages long. Ms. Pulitzer, for instance, highlighted state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli’s vote against an initial version of the state’s landmark police reform law, for which he cited lack of time to read the bill.
And while publicizing the names of just the “no” votes in committees is arguably a step in the right direction, why not give voters an unobstructed view of how their legislators perform a key part of their duty? As it stands now, making public just the “nays” while tallying but not differentiating the “yeas,” abstentions and nonvotes only serves to confuse the public’s view of what should be an open matter.
“It really calls into question what is good government,” said Ms. Pulitzer, who stressed that advocating for voters also means advocating for a government that is responsive and accessible to them. “We believe that good government is a clear and open process.”
The League of Women Voters, including its Central Berkshire chapter, is a bipartisan organization, and the group’s concerns over the Legislature’s systematic opacity reflect what should be a bipartisan concern: making sure our state government operates fairly, openly and in a manner accessible to the public it is supposed to serve. While a core majority of House Democrats sided against taking a meaningful step in that direction, it is telling that those representatives who did back a more open legislative process did so from across the spectrum, with self-identified progressive Democratic legislators bridging the aisle with a majority of Republicans.
This isn’t about politics — it’s about the very democratic frameworks in which our politics are conducted. The voters of Massachusetts deserve better than allowing politicians to shape those frameworks in such a way that they obscure the people’s attention to the handling of their public business.
In siding against giving their constituents basic knowledge of how the sausage gets made on Beacon Hill, members of the Berkshire delegation have maintained that there is no transparency issue, echoing an argument posed by other state representatives that, essentially, there’s nothing to see here, but you, the voter, shouldn’t have a right to see it anyway. It’s worth noting that House lawmakers arguing this point are seemingly at odds with the public they’re elected to serve. A nonbinding 2020 ballot question in 16 districts showed that a vast majority in all of those districts, from Franklin to Suffolk counties, shows that voters across the commonwealth want House committee votes made public.
“I just find it’s my own responsibility to get information about how I vote to my constituents,” state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, told The Eagle after the House rules vote. Unfortunately, the rules vote allows House members to shirk that responsibility at will. To her credit, Rep. Farley-Bouvier lists the House bills she has backed on her website. Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, told The Eagle he would disclose any of his votes if asked, adding he believes that many lawmakers would do the same.
We hope that Rep. Barrett is correct. If the Massachusetts House of Representatives can’t live up to the most basic tenets of transparency demanded by a commitment to democracy, we call on the Berkshire delegation to do so.
Rep. Barrett, Rep. Farley-Bouvier, Rep. Pignatelli and Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru: Going forward, we ask that you please provide The Eagle with a record of your respective House votes, including those in committee. If you do not, then you must explain to your constituents why they are undeserving of this information.
If you do so, then Berkshire voters will be better equipped for participatory democracy, though it would raise the same question that transparency advocates pushed in their original rules proposal: Why don’t all commonwealth voters deserve the same?