The Massachusetts House of Representatives held its annual budget debate last week. It was a three-day event this time like it was last year (down from what once was the usual four).
To the extent there was any press coverage, the story once again was that House leadership made nearly all the budget debate decisions offstage, so to speak, by way of what it calls the “consolidated amendment” process. The first step in this process is for House Ways and Means Committee staff to sort the 1307 amendments that members filed into subject matter categories. The second step is for House leadership, after a brief opportunity for advocacy by amendment sponsors, to winnow each of those categories (there were nine this year) into a multi-page consolidated amendment that adopts some of the originally-filed amendments and rejects many others.
If you were thinking that amendments with very broad support, like this one to increase funding to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, would have an excellent chance of being adopted, you would not necessarily be right. Notwithstanding its supermajority of 92 sponsors (out of 160 members), it went down. Conversely, an amendment to tinker with the distribution of revenues at greyhound racing simulcast sites made it past the finish line with only a single sponsor.
And what about the roll call votes this year? Pretty few and far between again. A Democrat who calls for a roll call vote against the wishes of leadership will often not be pleased with his or her future committee assignments. Republicans, who have less power, are somewhat freer from constraint. Over the three days of budget debate, there were 24 roll call votes. Seven of the 24 concerned procedural matters, like determining whether a quorum was present. Another ten of the 24 were votes to approve each of the consolidated amendments and to pass the final bill. All ten of these votes were unanimous yesses.
That leaves seven roll call votes on substantive issues. All seven were requested by members of the Republican party, none by Democrats. In each case, the GOP legislator requesting the vote was in the minority after the votes were tallied, but that fact was secondary to other political concerns. Representative Jim Lyons (R-Andover), whom we know as the state chair of the Ted Cruz committee (and as a person able to dictate legislative policy in the area of criminal justice by merely threatening to debate), secured roll call votes on his amendment to defund Planned Parenthood if it was found to have violated the state law against the sale of fetal organs and his amendment to cut local aid to so-called sanctuary cities, an imprecise term for communities that place a relatively low priority on having their police forces devote resources to notifying U.S. immigration officials that someone in police custody might be of interest.
The votes on both amendments were along party lines, good news for entities like Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance. This non-partisan (ahem) non-profit, exempt from taxation as a 501(c)(4) organization, has been called out in the past for its electoral scare tactics on the subject of immigration. And as fodder for the November elections, it has already posted the sanctuary cities roll call on its 2015-16 legislative scorecard, where no House Republican scores lower than a 92 out of 100 and no House Democrat scores higher than a 36.
While GOP legislators seize opportunities to spot their Democratic rivals for electoral advantage, House leadership believes that blurring the distinctions between the parties is the best way to preserve its current 126-34 supermajority, a more important consideration, apparently, than what that supermajority does with its power. Under a policy of containment, the only good roll call votes are unanimous ones.