BOSTON (SHNS) – All House sessions would permanently be live-streamed, committee chairs would have discretion to hold hybrid-format hearings, and published committee votes would not require the disclosure of how any individual lawmakers voted, under a proposed House rules package teed up Tuesday for debate in less than 24 hours.
Some representatives were hurrying Tuesday to file amendments to the rules after the package (H 3930) was introduced during an informal session after 1 p.m. and the House agreed to an amendment deadline of 5 p.m.
But despite the flurry of activity to sort out the rules this week, the proposal specifies the package would not take effect until Oct. 1. The House placed on tomorrow’s docket a measure (H 3929) to extend the current COVID-19 emergency rules through Oct. 1. The COVID-19 rules are currently set to expire July 15.
An emergency rules extension would mean remote voting and session participation could continue through September.
Emergency rules, which the House has operated under for most of the COVID-19 pandemic, would also be enshrined in the permanent House rules and could be activated in the future — but only for 30-day increments. The House would have to vote that an emergency continues to exist in order to re-up the special rules for another 30 days.
Any sort of audio-visual recording was verboten at informal sessions before COVID-19, but with the pandemic came high-definition livestreaming of all House sessions. In a study of the rules released last week, the Rules Committee wrote that continued livestreaming was “worth pursuing” despite the expense of additional staff needed to contend with “long recesses.” That was among the recommendations incorporated into the rules package, which, if adopted, would mean that formal and informal sessions would be livestreamed.
The study also recommended that committee poll results on the Legislature’s website include the names of lawmakers who vote against bills in committee, separating out the naysayers from an aggregate total of representatives voting yes, not voting, or reserving their rights. The package released Tuesday differs from that suggestion, seeking to not include any representatives’ names and instead display anonymous totals for all the vote categories.
The pandemic has also shifted access to committee hearings, which until last year were rarely livestreamed. While the proposed rules stop short of requiring remote access or livestreams for hearings, they do give discretion to chairs of House committees to “determine the appropriate means and level of remote participation” for committee meetings, with the exception of executive sessions, and specify that the public “may” be allowed to participate remotely by the same means afforded to lawmakers.
Remote participation would also be offered to representatives and their employees when undergoing mandatory anti-harassment training, although the rules package strikes language which had required House members to receive the training on an annual basis.
The package would also strike a relatively new section that was intended to allow legislative caucuses to accept money. Added to the rules in 2019, the idea of caucuses receiving private contributions hit a snag when the Senate disagreed with the House on setting up a caucus trust fund. Speaker Robert DeLeo said at the time that the idea of the trust fund was “somewhat misconstrued, shall we say.”
The clerk would no longer have to publish all House dockets – which can include petitions, reports, and communications – on the Legislature’s website. The rules package would remove “dockets” from Rule 13A, leaving only the requirement that all bills be posted.
Before “meaningful policy changes” can be called up for a vote in a formal session, the committee chair reporting the bill would have to distribute a bill summary to all House members. That new section is tacked onto a rule that already requires that copies of all bills be made available to the public at least 24 hours before they are voted on.
Democrat Rep. Chris Markey of Dartmouth would take that a step further by giving members and the public multiple days to review a bill in depth. Markey proposed an amendment during the short filing window Tuesday that would require the release of bills 48 hours in advance.
Representatives usually debate proposed rules changes at the outset of each two-year session, but Speaker Ronald Mariano this year postponed debate for several months. The delay gave lawmakers more time to consider changes in the way the House operates, but at least one lawmaker objected to the short window for drafting proposed amendments.
“I now have 3 hours and 30 minutes to go through 115 pages of the new rules package,” Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven tweeted minutes after representatives voted on the deadline. ” … This is exactly how one of the least transparent legislatures in the country operates.”
The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance and Act on Mass — two advocacy groups from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum — both blasted House leadership in statements.
“The rushed vote is a clear attempt to undermine the work of constituent advocates and prevent us from having a seat at the table,” Act on Mass organizing director Erin Leahy said. “It’s unacceptable to expect our democracy to function when the legislature shrouds itself in the dark. The overwhelming majority of constituents want transparent rules reform and if the legislature refuses to budge, that begs the question of what they’re hiding.”
Said MassFiscal spokesman Paul Diego Craney: “No rules, no budget, no laws. Speaker Mariano’s ‘House’ is a mess and the least democratic and transparent in the country. After waiting 159 days, House lawmakers and the public are given less than four hours to file amendments for the important rules debate. No democracy can function this long with a dictator in charge.”
Uyterhoeven, who co-founded Act on Mass, joined with Rep. Tami Gouveia, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, to file Amendment 2 which would reinstate a term limit on the speaker’s office. They propose an eight-year limit retroactive to January 2021.
At least 17 amendments had been filed by Tuesday evening. Two from Reps. Patrick Kearney and Brad Hill deal with cases where remote voting would always be allowed in House sessions.
Kearney, a U.S. Navy Reserve officer, is seeking to allow permanent remote voting for lawmakers serving on National Guard or active reserve military duty. Kearney’s office announced Tuesday morning that he is currently serving in North Africa.
And Hill, who battled cancer several years ago while serving in the House, seeks to allow members to vote remotely on all roll calls if they are hospitalized or incapacitated due to ongoing medical treatment.
In Amendment 5, House Minority Leader Brad Jones seeks to get right down to business. While formal sessions often begin with a lengthy recess while Democrats hold a private meeting, Jones’ amendment stipulates that if the House does not start votes and debate within 30 minutes of the time the session was scheduled to begin, “the Speaker shall forthwith, and without debate, adjourn or recess” until 10 a.m. the next day at the earliest.
The House convenes at 11 a.m. Wednesday with roll calls starting at 1 p.m. House Democrats will meet privately in a caucus at 12 noon.