House Democrats filed into a wood-paneled meeting room at the State House yesterday morning to get their first detailed look at pension overhaul legislation they were due to vote on several hours later. It was clear from a sign on the door, "members and staff," that the public was not welcome... Not long after, two floors above, the entire 40-member Senate filed into the Senate President's office for a private meeting on ethics legislation. Even as they spoke of changing the political culture on Beacon Hill, by pursuing legislation designed to restore the public trust, the people's representatives in the House and Senate continued their longstanding tradition of deliberating their most important decisions behind closed doors.
Rank-and-file lawmakers currently have little clue about what is going on or what they inevitably will be asked to vote on with little notice in the waning days of the session. "This is the pace a lot of people like, to be very active and very busy and getting things done, one thing after another," said Representative Brian P. Wallace, a South Boston Democrat. But ask him - or almost any other lawmaker, for that matter - what is coming up next week, and the answer is the same: "I don't know."
I am not sure what bothers me most: the fact that the Senate President, one of the most powerful people in the state, treats the Commonwealth's citizens like so many gnats, to be swatted away or shut out; or the unfathomable arrogance reflected in her willingness to say these things to a reporter.
Top lawmakers say that meeting in private allows for greater candor and that allowing the public to take part in the proceedings would only bog things down. "They can get their work done faster," Senate President Therese Murray said in a recent interview. "They can get a lot more done quickly. It would be like if we came and sat as you [did your work] and sat around and said, 'Why are you doing that?' or 'Why are you saying that?' "
Here's a nice encapsulation of how this mindset translates into action that impacts all of us, every day (okay, every week - they do not meet anywhere near to every day):
Our government, ladies and gentlemen. The one we reelect, cycle after cycle after cycle. 2010 approaches.
After a piece of legislation is approved by the House and the Senate, a six-member conference committee is formed, consisting of four Democrats and two Republicans assigned by the House speaker or Senate president.
The conference committee is designed to hammer out differences between the two chambers and to draft legislation for final approval. But determining what has happened in conference committee is virtually impossible.
The first action taken by the conference committee is often a motion to restrict the meetings to legislators and staff members. Lawmakers assigned to the committees treat the deliberations like the Cuban missile crisis, afraid that any peep during the process will brand them a snitch.
Only when disagreements are ironed out does the legislation become public, and then it is often swiftly approved, with little discussion, by the House and Senate. The committee's compromise must be voted on, up or down, with no opportunity for amendment.
Speaking of which, State Senator Scott Brown (R-Wrentham) has been everywhere lately, not just raising his own profile (he is often mentioned as a potential statewide candidate), but encouraging every Republican he meets to run for the Legislature. According to Senator Brown, the response has been highly encouraging to say the least. Bravo for him. If he recruits a handful of candidates who go on to win next year, he'll have done more to revitalize the moribund state GOP than any of us carping from the sidelines.