BOSTON (State House News Service) – Many changes to Massachusetts House operations made during the pandemic, including livestreaming of all sessions and remote access to bill hearings, should be made permanent, according to a new House Rules Committee report, which also recommends against showing the public how every individual lawmaker votes on bills at the committee level.
The 24-page report produced by the Rules Committee and filed Thursday night will inform an upcoming debate over House rules that had been postponed from January and will determine how the branch operates for the remainder of 2021-2022 session as lawmakers consider issues such as voting reform and how to spend $5 billion in federal stimulus aid.
Rules Committee Chairman William Galvin of Canton and Second Assistant Majority Leader Sarah Peake of Provincetown recommended that a rules debate take place this month, but that new rules not take effect until more normal operations resume at the State House.
“As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to incorporate lessons learned, thereby providing for a more efficient, flexible, and accessible legislative process,” Galvin and Peake wrote in the report.
The report recommended that informal House sessions continue to be livestreamed and that improvements made in the past year to the speed at which roll call votes get posted online continue. The committee also reported that the “vast majority” of committee chairs had positive experiences with remote bill hearings, and recommended that a “robust and flexible structure for hybrid hearings” be used moving forward.
Galvin and Peake said remote hearings increased “ease and access” for people, including those who faced physical barriers to participation in the past.
The report, however, suggested that questions remain over whether committees will continue to allow for live, interactive testimony and participation by legislators and the public, whether livestreaming will be a requirement or at the discretion of the chairs, and whether the Legislature’s website will continue to host the hearings.
The committee also recommended that House members be given a section-by-section summary of bills before being asked to vote on the floor, but continued to recommend against the disclosure of how all lawmakers vote on bills moving through committee.
Galvin and Peake said the committee recommended “nuanced changes” to the disclosure of committee votes that closely resembles the proposal the House included in a package of joint rules still under negotiation with the Senate.
The report said committees should publish the aggregate number of “yes” votes, members not voting and members reserving their rights, while also releasing the names of any lawmaker voting against a bill in committee. The report called this a “balanced approach” that would respect how a member’s position might change as a bill gets redrafted.
House Speaker Ron Mariano postponed debate over House rules at the start of the session to allow for this Rules Committee study to take place, choosing instead to extend the existing pandemic rules under which the House had been operating.
Those temporary rules are scheduled to expire on July 15.
The Rules Committee recommended that the House debate new standing rules in July, but delay their implementation until a date in the future. That date would depend on conversations with the Senate over when to reopen the State House to employees and the public, Galvin and Peake said.
In the meantime, the committee recommended that the temporary emergency rules remain in place, and that they also be built into the standing rules with the option to activate remote voting protocols should there be a resurgence of COVID-19 or another emergency necessitating their use.
The decision to delay consideration of new rules for the session also came amidst a campaign from outside groups to improve transparency in the House. Over the years, critics of the way the Legislature operates say that too often popular bills die without floor votes, or even recorded committee votes.
Outside groups like Act on Mass saw few of their priorities, such as fully public committee votes or the reinstatement of term limits on the speaker, reflected in the report, which features a lengthy segment about the rise of “coalitions” and non-profit organizations that operate in the gray area of state lobbying and campaign finance laws.
Without naming any groups, the Galvin-Peake report concludes, “It should be noted that since the announcement of this study order and the following press coverage, organizations that may have been operating in violation of the current lobbying laws, campaign finance laws, or both, have since made efforts to be in compliance. These efforts are appreciated, and all operators engaged in our vital civic conversation should continue to seek professional guidance and use helplines operated by state regulators.”