David Bernstein: “Let’s Dismantle the Massachusetts House of Representatives”

David Bernstein has really had it with the Massachusetts Legislature’s opaque back-room operations and its continuous failure to address many of the state’s long-term needs. And in this month’s Boston Magazine, he’s offering a solution: “Let’s Dismantle the Massachusetts House of Representatives”:

If all of this infuriates you; if you’re also enraged that Beacon Hill continuously fails to seriously address the state’s long-term needs for transportation, housing, education, and development; and if you’re sick and tired of the state legislature’s opaque back-room operations, I have a proposal for you: Eliminate the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Points for boldness! This is also a thoughtful argument that touches on the feudal origins of the two-chamber system (the nobles needed a safe space where they could protect themselves against the tyranny of the majority) and the present effect of that system, which is to allow “special interests to gum up the works without any public accounting for legislators.” Exhibit A in this regard is the conference committee process, which comes into play every time the House and Senate pass differing versions of a bill:

As Beacon Hill watchers know, bills in conference committee pile up until the final days of the formal session, when the supposed work of two years, 200 legislators, and committees in open hearings is actually done in a hectic rush, by a handful of people, horse-trading within and between bills, until finally spitting out new versions for the two chambers to hastily endorse.

Also not to be missed is a timeline detailing Speaker DeLeo’s consolidation of power and predicting the end date of the DeLeo era (January 2021, when he becomes a lobbyist).

A couple thoughts:

First, in deciding on its governing rules for this new (2017-2018) session, the Legislature acknowledged the problem of the end-of-session bottleneck. The new rules require the joint committees, which handle the initial consideration of bills, to complete their work in early February rather than in mid-March, and they also prohibit the appointment of new conference committees within 14 days of the end of a legislative session. But there’s no deadline for conference committees to finish their work, so stay tuned to July of next year to see if these rules changes have practical results.

Second, if the Legislature is continually failing to address the state’s pressing issues, the question arises — what are they doing with their time?

My theory: they’re doing a lot of enacting, but the bills that are passed fall under the decidedly “noncontroversial” category — designating bridges and overpasses in honor of beloved community members; establishing sick leave banks for one state employee at a time, exempting a single municipal position from the Civil Service laws, or granting one additional liquor license to one town.

In 1997, the noncontroversial bills like these made up about a tenth of the Legislature’s output. Now it’s more like one in three.

Uncontroversial

The graph presents a corollary of Bernstein’s thesis — our Legislature avoids many pressing issues (charter schools and marijuana being two recent examples) and increasingly contents itself with hyperlocal items that lack wide application or great import.

Anyway, read the article. I’m not convinced about the remedy he’s proposing, but the diagnosis, seems to me, is beyond dispute.

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