Hope springs eternal, and maybe, just maybe, a 24-page report that emerged from a key Beacon Hill committee on Thursday heralds a new era in Statehouse transparency.
The Rules Committee report envisions life after COVID-19, which disrupted the way the Legislature works, along with everything else under the sun. In a post-pandemic world, the committee imagines, maybe the House of Representatives holds onto some of the changes to its practices that were born of necessity 9 to 12 months ago.
Giving roll call votes prominent display on the Legislature’s website is an example. “We recommend embedding this change permanently within the rules and continuing to work … to ensure the House has the infrastructure necessary to maintain timely posting of all roll-call votes,” wrote the authors of the report, Rep. William C. Galvin, D-Canton, who is chairman of the House Rules Committee, and Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, an assistant majority leader.
It’s hard to argue with giving prominent attention to lawmakers performing their most essential function.
Broadcasting informal House sessions is another example, even if it means an investment of resources, which the report’s authors say is “worth pursuing.”
Over the long haul, Galvin and Peake foresee a “robust and flexible structure for hybrid hearings,” which adapts some aspects of the virtual hearings currently in place. This will help “increase ease and access for our constituents but should also help empower those who have faced barriers to physical participation in the past,” they write.
Imagine, people who’ve never had a shot at going to a Statehouse hearing in the past because of time constraints or physical disability can perhaps look forward to those barriers being permanently removed.
Champions of open government can also find reason for encouragement in the authors’ description of a new world order in which the public can more easily engage operations of the House of Representatives, if not the whole Legislature.
Hearings, the authors write, “provide an opportunity for the public to lend their voices to policy development, as well as for House members to gain a deeper understanding of feedback on any given policy proposal.” Lawmakers, they add, must “seek to elevate voices of those who have traditionally been underrepresented.”
Finally, advocates for transparency can be cautiously optimistic by the report’s discussion of lobbying reforms, and ensuring that groups that work to sway Beacon Hill are more open about those efforts. We say “cautiously” because when House Speaker Ronald Mariano charged the Rules Committee with looking into lobbying practices, it seemed he may be targeting certain groups including, ironically, one advocating for openness and accountability on Beacon Hill.
Talk of transparency aside, all is not sunshine at the Statehouse. Apart from the fact this report is only that — details of rules changes have yet to be negotiated within the House or with the Senate — the document hints that some dark corners won’t be getting any lighter.
Report writers aren’t interested in disclosing how lawmakers vote in committee, for example, unless they’ve voted against a particular bill. This owes to the fact that “support or opposition can and should change,” they write.
Heaven forbid the Legislature create a record of its members changing their minds.
Nor do the authors address some of the bolder recommendations of groups that wanted reform within the Legislature at the start of the year, for example by reinstating term limits on the speaker’s job.
Little surprise that didn’t make it into the report. The authors talk a good game about openness and accountability. “By design,” they write of what distinguishes their branch of government, “the House is the closest to the people of the commonwealth and structured to be the most responsive.”
Still, this is the Massachusetts House of Representatives we’re talking about, notorious for its lack of openness. Having posted the report about transparency to the web on Friday afternoon, State House News Service remarked on Twitter that it wasn’t clear “why the new rules review report does not appear on the Legislature’s website.”
The legislative leopard, it seems, cannot change its spots.