BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–As Senate Democrats emerged Wednesday from a private caucus in President Karen Spilka’s office, they had mixed reactions to the proposed removal of a decades-old term limit on the presidency that dates back to the tail-end of Sen. William Bulger’s regime.
The chamber’s Democrats huddled for around three hours ahead of a Thursday formal session where proposed Senate rules (S 17), joint rules (S 18), and 44 amendments will be up for discussion. Among those 44 amendments is one filed by Sen. Michael Rodrigues, who has served as Ways and Means chairman under Spilka, to remove an eight-year limit on the tenure of a Senate president.
There was some stress in the faces and voices of senators as they left the lengthy meeting, and while none of the senators the News Service caught up with indicated outright opposition to the move, a number indicated they were on the fence.
After a reporter asked Sen. Becca Rausch whether she supported removing the term limit, the Needham Democrat sighed, continued walking down a State House staircase for 10 seconds, and then said: “We have some big issues to talk about.”
Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton was heading up the stairs after caucus. Asked whether he supported nixing the term limit, he said: “I — we just came out of caucus, so just taking in all the arguments.”
Heading down the corridor in the direction of his office, Sen. Michael Moore paused around seven seconds before answering a question about whether he supported Rodrigues’ amendment. “I have to think about it. I understand more, now, their reasoning for it,” the senator from Millbury said. “Whether I support it or not, I still have to evaluate. So, I have concerns, but I’m going to have to evaluate it.”
Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, the leader of the branch’s three Republicans, who was in his office across the hall during the Democrat assembly, kept his cards close to his vest on the eve of the debate. Tarr said he was “evaluating all of the amendments” before adding that “there are a lot of strong feelings about [the term limit amendment], and we’re trying to sort them all out, and I am as well.”
Sen. Sal DiDomenico, who was interested in seeking the presidency back in 2018 before throwing his support behind Spilka, refused to comment on the amendment Wednesday.
Meantime, a top member of Spilka’s leadership team, President Pro Tempore Will Brownsberger, gave the change a full-throated endorsement and told the News Service that a president needs indefinite tenure “in order to be strong.” “I think that the Senate president, whoever he or she is, needs to have a long-term — a lease of indefinite term on the role,” the Belmont Democrat said. “She’s gotta come back to be re-approved by the members every two years, and it’s a democratic process in that way. But in order to be strong, she needs that long-term. A date-certain end to that lease weakens the presidency. Weakens the role of the presidency. So I think a vote to remove that is a vote to strengthen the Senate as a body.”
Generally speaking, elected officials who run legislative branches prefer not to operate as lame ducks because they may lose leverage as they negotiate spending and policy differences. On the other hand, term limits give lawmakers a chance to move up and prevent one person from cementing their grip on power for long periods.
Sen. Michael Barrett also pointed to strengths that come with open-ended terms, saying “one does suffer a real fall-off in effectiveness once one is an official lame duck.” “Imposing an eight-year term limit makes you an identified lame duck from the first year you take office as Senate president right now. Everyone predicates their perceptions of you during the final two years based on their knowledge that you will be out,” he said.
Seven presidents have served under the term limit, which has been in place for nearly 30 years.
It was included in the big rules reform debate of 1993 which, unusually, came in the month of December. It had been prefaced a couple months earlier by Sen. William Keating’s announcement that he would be challenging longtime President Bulger for the top post and had attracted several supporters.
Bulger, who had been president for about 15 years at the time, appointed a special committee of five first-term Democrats to recommend reforms, and after hours of debate and roll calls, the Senate accepted the changes at 12:52 a.m. four days before Christmas.
Three senators on that 1993 roll call, all voting in support of the reforms, still serve in the body today: Sens. Mark Montigny and Marc Pacheco, who were on the special panel that drafted the changes, and Barrett, who supported Keating’s bid for president and was planning his own gubernatorial run.
Barrett at the time spoke of Bulger’s “strong personality” and an “imbalance of power” in the Senate.
In an interview Wednesday, the Lexington Democrat said removing the limit would create “symmetrical rules of engagement” with the House and the Executive Branch, neither of which currently have such restrictions.
“If the governor’s not going to be term-limited, if the House isn’t going to be, if the House rank-and-file isn’t going to be, if the Senate isn’t going to be, if municipal officials aren’t going to be, then I don’t think there should be a different obligation on one office in the entirety of Massachusetts,” Barrett said.
Barrett confirmed that he had supported instituting the term limit on the presidency in 1993, and added that his motivations 30 years ago stemmed from the individual who was wielding the gavel.
“Yes, I just mentioned in the caucus that the one thing that can trump this need for symmetry is ideology. If one has a philosophical difference with one particular person, then you might go against the common-sense idea that one rule should apply to everybody. Billy Bulger was anti-choice, anti-gay rights, he was — in my view, respectfully — authoritarian and anti-democratic. And so because my district was progressive — I represented Cambridge and Allston-Brighton, Belmont and Watertown — he was fundamentally a problem for the views of my voters finding expression. That’s not the case today,” he said.
The Senate Republican leader in 1993, Sen. Brian Lees, had pushed for including the presidential term limit. One of his other priorities in the rules debate was “making it harder to have night sessions,” according to News Service coverage, a perennial topic that features among the 44 amendments up for debate Thursday.
Tarr pointed to “common themes” in the amendments and said support extends into the majority caucus for some of the Republican proposals.
“If we think about going past midnight, remote participation, additional time for consideration of materials, I think there is a broad base of support for those things which extends well beyond my caucus,” Tarr said. “And, as always, we’re willing to discuss how best to get there.”
For example, Tarr filed one amendment (6) that would require unanimous agreement in order to extend a Senate session past midnight. Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat, offered another proposal (16) to mandate a recorded vote on meeting past midnight.
Moore, a Millbury Democrat, said “the overnight sessions” concern him because “people get tired” and it could hold senators back from fully debating the matters before them.
“The issue we had at the end of last session, where we went until what, 10 o’clock the following morning? That is a concern. I don’t think we should be going to that hour. I think we should have — maybe we should start coming in sooner in the week, taking advantage of spare time we may have at the beginning of the week, rather than waiting until the last moment,” he said.
The Senate is scheduled to convene its rules session at 11 a.m. Thursday.