BOSTON (SHNS) – Thousands of bills have been filed, they’ve been sent to committees, and the next step is to let the public weigh in. But out of 33 committees, all 33 are delinquent on an initial step in setting up shop for the two-year term.
After they take their seats, committee chairs have four weeks to develop internal rules that will direct the flow of business before their panels over the following 22 or so months.
But the appointed deadline for filing committee rules came and went last week, on March 16. And on Monday afternoon, the start of spring in Massachusetts, not a single rules document had sprouted from any of the Legislature’s joint committees.
The joint rules of the two branches require committees to file these “rules of procedure” with the House and Senate clerks, and make them “available to the public and members of the General Court on the official website for the General Court.”
Generally, the protocols cover how committees will receive testimony from the public on the piles of bills in their custody, how committee members can cast their votes on the fates of those bills or on approval of new drafts, and if votes are taken by email, how much time members will have to participate in that decision-making process. Committee rules can go a long way towards facilitating an open process, or enabling voting processes shrouded in secrecy.
Electronic polls have become the most common way for committees to vote on bills but are often conducted without public notice, a contrast to the public executive sessions that committees used to hold on Beacon Hill that drew people into hearing rooms to see lawmakers discuss, amend and vote on bills.
Some sets of committee rules speak to the public’s ability to learn how lawmakers voted. The Transportation Committee’s 2019 rules specified that votes “shall be kept in the offices of the Committee and shall be available for public inspection.”
The rules can leave a broad amount of leeway to a committee’s two co-chairs.
The Transportation Committee’s rules from 2019-2020, for example, say that members should have 24 hours to reply to a poll on a bill — but the co-chairs “by mutual agreement” can “waive the 24 hour notice requirement.”
Same with the Education Committee, which in 2019-2020 called for polls to stay open for 24 hours or until all members had voted, with the proviso that the co-chairs could jointly decide on a “shorter deadline” in “case of an emergency.”
Committee rules also cover elemental basics of how hearings will be conducted as each panel listens to members of the public share their views on dozens or hundreds of bills in the coming months.
Like how the Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery Committee in its 2019-2020 rules required that “all electronic devices are required to be turned off or silenced during hearings, meetings and executive sessions.”
And last session, the Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee included a standard three-minute time limit for each witness to testify, while giving chairs the discretion to extend the time limit if desired.
It is not unusual for multiple hearings to be scheduled for the same time, and lawmakers will often take their colleagues’ testimony “out of turn” as officials bounce between multiple hearing rooms. Some committees explicitly allow for public officials to jump ahead of the general public in their rules.
Legislators appointed to chair positions take on oversight of more staff and a larger workload, including administrative tasks like developing these rules, and they are compensated with additional stipends on top of their regular legislative salary. The stipend for chairs, along with other leadership extra pay, was bumped up around 20 percent to kick off the new year.
Work hasn’t just stalled at the committee level when it comes to developing rules to govern operations on Beacon Hill this term.
The House and Senate approved their own competing versions of a joint rules package, covering the interactions between both branches and a general framework for committee hearings and public accessibility, in February.
Negotiators tasked with working out a final version, led by Rep. Michael Moran and Sen. Joan Lovely, held their first meeting Feb. 14, but in the ensuing five weeks they have not announced any resolutions except for a list of which committees would be formed this session.
Sewn into those proposals are requirements for a hybrid hearing structure that would see all committee meetings accessible both to in-person and virtual attendees, an innovation that proved popular during the pandemic.