A Tsunami of Truthiness: Anatomy of One House of Representatives Debate

The Boston Globe editorial board thinks that there is too little debate in our state’s House of Representatives because the Speaker keeps too many bills bottled up in committees. The Globe expressed this view in an editorial endorsing the Rule 28 coalition, a GOP effort to unite a majority of representatives behind a plan to use House rules to force bills onto the floor for debate.

All 33 of the House Republicans have joined the coalition. At last count, two of the 125 House Democrats have done so. The Globe thinks that everyone should be on board — after all, what could be more democratic than more debate?

Perhaps many of those who haven’t joined know from experience that debate rarely occurs in a vacuum and that the quantity of debate does not guarantee its quality. One case study: the House budget debate in 2010.

That year (an election year) several GOP reps filed an amendment to the annual budget entitled “Restrictions on Public Benefits.” The purpose of the amendment, they explained, was to prohibit “illegals” from receiving unemployment insurance, welfare, food stamps or other benefits. This is a favorite plank in the Tea Party platform, never mind the fact that it was (and is) already the law. The amendment required everyone applying for any public benefit to appear in person and produce a driver’s license to verify eligibility. The lead sponsor was Rep. Jeffrey Perry from Cape Cod. Seeking the GOP nomination for an open U.S. Congressional seat, he was looking for media exposure, as all candidates do. He was also looking for an opportunity to change the subject from his complicity in a police misconduct case.

To shop the amendment, the GOP went first to the “Mass GOP to Talk Radio” pipeline (featured on the Mass GOP website). On the first day of the budget debate, Rep. Perry called in to the Howie Carr show. Howie and Jeff agreed that the amendment made only the very simple and modest request that applicants for public benefits appear in person to “present their papers,” and that anyone who did not support the amendment must be in favor of continuing to allow “illegals” to receive benefits. The reddest-meat portion of the program was provided by a caller named Bill, who warned that

“the amount of people that can come – float, swim, fly, walk in — is infinite. We will sink our nation, economically — they will defeat the nation…[In Mexico], whole villages are talking about coming here and it’s the part of the village that never wanted to work, has no ambition – that’s why they didn’t come here 10 years ago. Hard work, working 70 hours a week is not what they want to do. And that’s what the next wave is going to be – it’s going to be a dependent class.

Howie and Jeff then reminded listeners to call their state representatives to let them know “there is going to be a consequence” if they don’t vote for the amendment.

The calls that Jeff Perry asked for poured into the State House. Many of the callers were even more outlandishly xenophobic and conspiratorial than caller Bill had been. For the remainder of the budget debate, the Herald continued to flog the story, always assuming that a law restricting eligibility for public benefits was a brand new idea instead of one that had been in place for years. Even the frequently rational Margery Eagan got on board: “I’m pretty moon-batty. But even bats like me can support an amendment to the state budget preventing illegal immigrants over 18 from getting many state and federal benefits…”

On the third day of debate, the House devoted two hours to the amendment. Efforts to point out that the state already has eligibility screenings for public benefits were drowned out, as were discussions of the costs of the amendment in both money and convenience. (For example, requiring those applying for unemployment insurance — 35,000 in the month of the debate, April 2010, alone — to appear in person to “present their papers” when they could otherwise apply over the telephone and have their social security numbers verified electronically would have created a bureaucratic nightmare of the kind that talk radio usually loves to hate). But rationality was no match for the specter of whole villages of Mexicans deeply averse to work heading north to Massachusetts to collect welfare. As a technical matter, the amendment was narrowly defeated, but the GOP’s appeal to truthiness propelled the immigration issue to the Senate to dominate debate there as well.

In the end, after this nativist spasm had, for the time being, spent itself, the budget included provisions that simply reiterated the eligibility screenings for public benefits that had been in effect the whole time. The Governor observed that all the brouhaha had been about “inventing a villain for political purposes.” The Globe lamented the “rancorous” quality of the debate and wished that legislative bodies would “cool the rhetoric and debate the facts.”

The Globe might take another look at that opinion in light of its recent calls for “livelier” and more “free-wheeling” debate. And any Representatives still deciding whether to join with their 35 counterparts to force more debate in the House of Representatives might first want to find out what’s in the “Mass GOP to Talk Radio” pipeline these days. After all, the House budget debate is coming up again next month. And 2012 is another election year.

(Cross-posted at Blue Mass Group)

2 thoughts on “A Tsunami of Truthiness: Anatomy of One House of Representatives Debate

  1. Sorry to disagree Hester. The antidote for irrational debate is more rational debate. Not shutting down the democratic process. No matter. It’s clear that the majority will not join http://www.rule28.com, but my hope is that we’ll at least revisit the rules and how process affects product in the State House. The only things standing between us and progress are the guardians of the status quo. If you think things can’t possibly be better than they are now, you’re welcome to stand with ’em.

  2. Thanks for your comments. I wish there were more debate — and more rational debate — too, and intended this post to diagnose one of the reasons why there’s not enough of that at present. (It should also probably be noted that, in 2010, you were not yet a member of the House – maybe with your influence the proceedings will grow more edifying.)

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