, Gloucester, MA

January 28, 2013

Accountability keys State House rules talks

By Andy Metzger
State House News Service

---- — BOSTON — As the state’s two legislative chambers prepare to debate tax increases, new gun laws and additional spending on transportation and education in the new session, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester and other Republicans are once again seeking to wrest some of the lawmaking power from Democrats through proposed changes to the rules.

House Republicans have proposed a bevy of amendments to House rules and joint rules, which the Democratic leadership submitted without any changes from last session. Amendments to the proposed Senate rules are due at noon on Wednesday.

Some of the Republican proposals reflect the party’s ideology, suggesting changes to make it more difficult to raise taxes and requiring a full explanation of earmarks.

The Republican suggestions also reveal the party’s frustration as the minority party working with an overwhelming majority of Democrats whose method of legislating is often done outside of public view. House Republicans want to ban Speaker Robert DeLeo from voting, except in cases where he can break a tie, to theoretically prevent lawmakers from taking their cues from the speaker’s votes.

“Historically, I would say most of our proposals aren’t embraced by the majority,” House Minority Leader Brad Jones told the News Service. “In past years, some have. We’ll see if the majority’s willing to embrace some of these proposals. That would be great.”

The rules are also malleable in a way that laws aren’t. Hardly a session goes by without the House or Senate suspending one rule or another.

Amendments suggested by Jones include a requirement for a 24-hour period between when a bill is released by a committee and when it reaches the floor for an up-or-down vote, and opening up all formal sessions to audio and video recording for commercial and public radio and television.

Jones also filed a proposal to limit the ability of lawmakers to “inoculate” themselves from up-or-down votes on amendments to bills such as the budget by filing further amendments to refer the issue for further study. The rule change would require a two-thirds vote to send an amendment to study, unless the author of the original amendment agrees.

About half of Jones’ amendments are new this year, while others have been filed in the past.

“The rules are really a statement of how we’re going to conduct the people’s business, and I think therefore the rules should be focused on accountability, individual responsibility of members, and a clear delineation of responsibilities-slash-power of leadership,” Jones said. “Ultimately, most of the power the speaker has is that given to him or her by the membership. So oftentimes it becomes convenient to say, ‘Well, the speaker’s tremendously powerful. It’s their decision. They do all this.’ But ultimately most of that power derives from the members giving it to them.”

Senate Republicans have also outnumbered their Democratic colleagues in the number of rules amendments offered in recent years. Two years ago, under Tarr’s first term as Minority Leader, Republicans sought to open informal sessions to broadcast media, to disallow the practice of members’ pairing of votes, and more reporting on how supplemental budgets affect the overall annual budget.

In the Senate, the proposed rules this year are largely the same as last year.

“We have moved along a minor set of changes in the existing Senate rules. They’re really technical in nature, and relate to things like Senate personnel office name change to human resources,” said Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, the acting chairman of the Rules Committee. If the technical changes weren’t adopted, “nothing in the world would change,” Rosenberg said. “They’re so minor,” he said.

Rosenberg said the only substantive change is expanding the ban on speaking on cell phones in the chamber, so that it includes tablets and other devices that are not phones. Sending text messages and emails from a phone is permitted, Rosenberg said. Rosenberg said that ban is enforced.

“When it is seen, it is pointed out very clearly,” Rosenberg said. “There have been times when the senate president has basically, from the rostrum, said to both staff and members, ‘We have a rule against using your cell phones,’” Rosenberg said. He said that after an overhaul about four years ago, the rules are “still pretty fresh.”