CLT Update
Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Imperious Maximus tinkers while reform burns

"We're heading toward this rule, 'Whatever Tommy wants whenever Tommy wants it' the rest of us can mail our votes in."

State Rep. Fran Marini (R-Hanson)
House Minority Leader

The Boston Herald
Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Governing by the rules
A Boston Herald editorial

The Massachusetts House is scheduled to get down to business today and according to tradition the adoption of new, permanent House rules is the first item on the agenda.

Usually this is inside-baseball stuff about which no one outside a three-yard radius of the State House would care. But the House's descent into its Animal House days during a late-night budget debate last April has caused some internal soul-searching and external calls for reform.

One suggestion by an ad hoc committee named by Speaker Tom Finneran that should become part of the permanent rules would require a majority vote to meet past 9 p.m. and even then would automatically halt the session at midnight. To meet beyond that hour would require unanimous consent of the House. Another much-needed reform would prohibit so-called phantom voting for absent members. Only if a member were in the State House but disabled could a court officer cast his vote -- and then only if it were announced to the membership at the start of each day's session.

Both of those proposals would surely help prevent a recurrence of a sorry chapter by which a handful of House members disgraced themselves and their colleagues. But it is just a start.

So much of what the Legislature does in the ordinary course of business is designed to keep the public in the dark and provide political cover for legislators who want to be all things to their varied constituencies. Now a coalition of public interest groups -- Common Cause, Citizens for Limited Taxation, CPPAX and the League of Women Voters among others -- has said: Enough!

The coalition wants legislators to do such startling things as actually enforce their own existing procedural rules and to use technology to make information -- amendments to legislation, for example -- accessible to members and the public alike.

But best of all, the coalition promises to monitor the behavior of both branches and to blow the whistle on those who set up unwarranted roadblocks to legislation and reward those who make efforts to enhance access. Theirs may be a tough and unrewarding job, but we should all be grateful that they have undertaken it.

The Boston Herald
Wednesday, January 24, 2000

Critics rap House 'reforms' 
by Ellen J. Silberman

House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran unveiled long-awaited "reforms" to address phantom voting and "Animal House" behavior by lawmakers -- bolstering his own power and formally allowing absent lawmakers to cast votes.

Finneran came close to one more rules change -- wiping out an eight-year term limit on his post -- but held off even though he claimed "the votes to do away with it are overwhelming."

Republicans charged that Finneran was laying the groundwork to make the change before his term expires in 2004 -- making him in essence a "speaker for life."

"These are important rules changes that centralize the power of this institution in the hands of the Speaker of the House," said House Minority Leader Francis L. Marini (R-Hanson). "They are in my view anti-democratic."

"We're heading toward this rule, 'Whatever Tommy wants whenever Tommy wants it' the rest of us can mail our votes in," Marini said.

Other technical changes tighten Finneran's grip by making it easier for him to kill legislation he doesn't like; limit debate, and schedule roll call votes so quickly that members don't have time to find out what they're voting on.

Finneran defended the changes as "tinkering" with procedures that have been in place for 30 years.

Lawmakers are set to vote on the changes at 11 this morning -- two hours before public television begins broadcasting the House session.

The new rules -- expected to be adopted with little dissent -- are a long-promised response to Herald reports last spring that lawmakers were drinking, sleeping and partying while costly amendments were gaveled through the House during an all-night budget session.

The Herald also reported that "phantom votes" were cast in the name of a member who was on a plane to South Carolina during the budget debacle. The member said he had no idea who had voted for him.

The new rules eliminate the problem of "phantom voting" by making it legal for members to cast votes for each other. The so-called "pairing" system, already in place in the Senate, allows a present member to vote for an absent colleague if the two are on different sides of the issue.

Finneran rejected a plan, proposed by his hand-picked reform panel, that would have required members to vote for themselves at all times.

"The practice that took place during last year's budget that was called phantom voting this year would be an acceptable practice for the House of Representatives," Marini said. "That's not what the public expected" when we promised to reform the system.

Critics also noted that Finneran has scheduled the rules vote before announcing his new committee chairmen -- giving him addition power over lawmakers who are hoping for the lucrative positions.

Finneran's new rules also give the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee even more power, making it almost impossible for rank-and-file members to add projects to the budget once it reaches the floor. Under the new rules any new spending would have to be offset by a corresponding cut -- an extremely difficult task once the budget is written.

"It guts the ability of members to participate meaningfully in the (budget) debate," said Rep. James J. Marzilli (D-Arlington), a frequent Finneran critic who last year used an amendment to add $13 million for school desegregation to the budget. "It's the members saying (we're) willing to abide by whatever the speaker says."

But Finneran portrayed the new system as a way to increase fiscal responsibility in the coming tough economic times.

"That makes everybody a quasi-chairman of Ways and Means. They have to show responsibility (by holding the bottom line)," Finneran said. "I thought that's what everybody sought."

Finneran's plan also allows the Ways and Means Committee to write legislation on any subject. Critics charge the secretive committee will use the power to make Finneran's pet legislation law without any public discussion.

Massachusetts Republican Party Chairman Brian Cresta blamed his fellow lawmakers as much as the speaker for the consolidation of power.

"This is the House of Representatives -- that's plural at the end," Cresta said. "If the members see fit to vote for this then shame on all of us."

State House News Service
Tuesday, January 23, 2001

On eve of debate, speaker's order sparks
a stir among liberals and GOP

By Trevor Hughes and Elisabeth J. Beardsley

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JAN. 23, 2001 ... House members will be able to vote without being at the State House, and will be allowed to add money to the annual state budget bill only if they find a corresponding amount to cut, under a package of House rules changes offered by Speaker Thomas Finneran Tuesday.

While the bulk of the rules are identical to the ones the House has operated under for decades, some of the changes are raising hackles among Republicans and liberal House members. Members are slated to debate and vote on the changes Wednesday.

"For all intents and purposes, these are the same rules that we had around here for 30 years," Finneran said at an afternoon press availability.

The changes don't propose extending his term as speaker. Two years ago, members agreed to allow him to add eight months to his fourth term, which would allow him to remain as speaker through 2004. He's in the third term and limited to one more. Finneran said Tuesday that members would support eliminating the speaker's term limit. "The votes are there to remove that provision overwhelmingly," he said, adding he would urge members to "set it aside" if someone offered a term limit amendment.

But Republicans are worried that the absence of the "speaker for life" proposal is merely part of a larger game of parliamentary chess. They say the groundwork for the final power play is in a proposed Finneran change that would require a two thirds vote to amend orders from the House Rules Committee.

Rep. David Tuttle (R-Barre) said he can envision a scenario two years from now in which the speaker's rules package includes a speaker-for-life proposal. The day before the rules debate, House Rules could issue an order saying that the vote will be up-or-down, no amendments would be accepted, and time for debate would be limited to five minutes. Under that scenario, a two-thirds vote would be required to amend such an order, making it almost impossible to change. "It's a time bomb," Tuttle said.

The proposed changes to the House's operating rules come in the wake of the "Animal House" scandal, an all-night budget session last spring during which members were drinking at the State House, chanting 'toga, toga' on the House floor and voting for absent members. Shortly after the scandal, Finneran pledged to clean up the process....

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