Dear Globe: Want to Rein In the Speaker? Try Journalism Instead of GOP Stunts

For a group of devotees of Ayn Rand, the Republican members of the House of Representatives are awfully keen on putting a governmental thumb on their side of the scale.

First, we had Rep. Daniel Webster arguing that the House Ethics Committee ought to be composed of 4 members from each party instead of the 13 to 3 split that the ratio of Democrats to Republicans would ordinarily have yielded. Rep. Webster was not satisfied even when the Democrats agreed to close the gap to 7 to 4. His argument — that “we should all take ethics extremely seriously” — has been undone by his own repeated plunges into legal hot water, but the mantra that more Republicans means more ethics apparently lives on.

It lives on, for example, as the Rule 28 Coalition, an effort to demonstrate that the reason the Republican legislative agenda is not succeeding is the overweening power of the Speaker of the House, not the failure of that agenda to compete in the marketplace of ideas. That plan would have recruited 60 or so Democrats to join the 30 or so Republicans to use the House rules to get more bills (especially more Republican bills — maybe the one making it illegal to perform an abortion until a woman has had an opportunity to see her fetus in an ultrasound?) on the House floor for debate. Now that the only two Democratic members to join the Rule 28 Coalition are leaving the Legislature, the Coalition’s fan base is down to its Republican members and — rather more surprisingly — the Boston Globe editorial board.

The board has endorsed the Rule 28 Coalition twice this year, most recently in early June, when it lamented that the Speaker’s power has had a “strangulating effect on democratic decision-making.” The board added that among those particularly frustrated by the current lack of “freewheeling debate” are political journalists.

Really? Political journalists are the victims here? Couldn’t one just as easily say that political journalism — or rather the lack thereof — is the cause of the problem the editorial board is bemoaning? No one disputes that the quantity of political coverage in the State House has declined. A news vacuum always makes it easier for the already powerful to increase their power. There was more “robust dissent” in the House 25 years ago; there were also more reporters writing more stories on a more regular basis. (To wit: in 2009, the American Journalism Review wrote that 355 newspaper reporters and editors were covering state capitols full time, a 30 percent decrease from six years earlier.)

These days, it takes a major (if manufactured) controversy at the State House to get the attention of the press. Two years ago, for example, when the Republican party (with assists from the Boston Herald and WRKO) hijacked the annual budget debate and turned it into an anti-immigrant rampage, the Globe went along, turning in seven stories on the political heat the GOP and Herald were causing but no light on the faulty assumption that the receipt of public assistance benefits by immigrants not entitled to them was rampant and was a major cause of the state’s budget woes. (Credit here to WBUR, which by contrast, took its job more seriously.)

The editorial board apparently sees no role for the press in curtailing the Speaker’s power: “If rank-and-file lawmakers won’t resist the smothering of open democracy that has become the norm on Beacon Hill, nobody else will do it for them.” Maybe before they embrace more faux-bipartisan stunts like the Rule 28 Coalition as their answer, they should listen to the paper’s editor, who feels differently.

The freedoms of the First Amendment matter little if we are prepared only to declare our rights but not to exercise them — if we are unwilling to do what was envisioned: holding our government accountable … bringing truth into the open and submitting it for public debate … guarding against abuse of power.

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