Quincy Democrat Ron Mariano ascended to the speakership of the Massachusetts House of Representatives as 2020 waned, and, under the House rules, he can keep that job as long as he wants it.
Robert DeLeo, who served as speaker for 12 years, handed off to his lieutenant, Mariano, with a majority of lawmakers voting in favor, as DeLeo left office for a job at Northeastern University.
It was DeLeo who guaranteed whoever held the speaker’s gavel could serve in that role for life, as long as he stayed in the good graces of Democratic House members — who hold a strong majority — and didn’t get indicted. Given how much power the speaker holds over everything House members do — from their committee assignments, office budgets and even where in the Statehouse their offices are located — only criminal indictment or the threat of arrest have driven a speaker out of the position in recent memory, at least until DeLeo announced he was leaving for another job.
The job of House speaker is unfairly limited to a small group of lawmakers and their designees.
It wasn’t always so, having a “speaker for life” leading the House. DeLeo once embraced term limits for the speaker.
DeLeo asked lawmakers in 2009 to reinstitute the eight-year term limit to restore public trust in state government after predecessors Charles Flaherty, Thomas Finneran and Salvatore DiMasi left the speaker’s office under legal clouds.
Lest we forget, DiMasi was sentenced to federal prison for using his influence to steer $17.5 million in state contracts to a software firm in exchange for kickbacks.
Finneran, who preceded DiMasi as speaker, was indicted after leaving office for lying while testifying in a lawsuit. He eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.
And Charles Flaherty, who preceded Finneran, was forced from office after pleading guilty to a federal felony tax charge.
At the time he proposed the eight-year term limit for speaker, DeLeo told The Boston Globe that his proposal was largely symbolic, since speakers rarely serve more than eight years. That was true until it no longer wasn’t. In 2015, House members granted DeLeo the speakership for life by voting 109-45 to spike the speaker’s term limit and leave its future solely in the hands of the man who held the job.
Just before that vote, some lawmakers complained privately about how the speakership had amassed too much power to be ceded to just one person.
One of them, Jonathan Hecht of Watertown, took to the House floor before the vote to plead for term limits.
“It’s like magnetic north, all compasses tend to swing in its direction,” he said in a Boston Globe story at the time, adding later, “If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that absent term limits, there are no real checks on the speaker’s longevity in office.”
It’s 2021 and there’s a new speaker on board. Now is the time for lawmakers of both parties to revisit that 2015 vote eliminating the term limit for the speakership. Six years after the vote, there are some new lawmakers in the Legislature who might have the spunk to seek a rules change.
In spite of his years of service in the House, Mariano didn’t take the job because there was no limit to the term. He undoubtedly steps up to the challenge because he believes he has the knowledge and skills to be a good speaker.
When Common Cause Massachusetts came out against the 2015 move to eliminate the speaker’s term limit, it pointed out that speakers aren’t subject to statewide election. Without term limits, a speaker must either be deposed, be forced out due to ethical problems or leave of their own will, typically after hand-picking a successor, which is where we are today.
Legislators should consider re-imposing a term limit for the speakership, not as a rebuke to Mariano or DeLeo, but to ensure good leaders can get a fair shot at moving into the top leadership position because of what they have done, not because the man or woman in the speaker’s chair took a job elsewhere.