There can be little doubt that the Massachusetts House of Representatives is one of the great ethical cesspools of American politics.
Sure, the legislature in neighboring Rhode Island takes a back seat to nobody for chicanery and two-faced double-dealing; and states like Louisiana, Illinois, and New Jersey seem to revel in the base moral tone and loose standards of personal probity maintained across generations of elected officials.
But the Massachusetts House stands in a class of its own. Over the past 20 years, three successive Speakers have been driven from office by federal investigators: Charlie Flaherty of Cambridge and Tom Finneran of Dorchester, who pled guilty to charges of tax evasion and perjury, respectively; and Sal DiMasi of the North End, found guilty by a jury this month of corruption, fraud, and conspiracy.
The only ones still insisting that DiMasi represents an isolated — rather than a systemic — problem are the House members themselves. Of course. They also supported DiMasi's refusal to turn over his records to the State Ethics Commission; re-elected him Speaker; replaced him with his hand-picked successor; and rose to a standing ovation when he and Finneran visited the chamber.
Rather than waiting for these status-quo sycophants to change, we can — and should — simply abolish the House.
Eliminating the House by constitutional amendment, and adopting a unicameral (one-chamber) legislature, would put the remaining lawmakers under far greater scrutiny. It would also discourage the centralized, top-down autocracy that sheer numbers in the 160-member House chamber almost inevitably require.
Gone would be the closed-door conference committees, where bills get rewritten and deals get done without public debate or explanation. This would eliminate the absurd end-of-session ritual of backlogged legislation rammed through in late-night sessions, epitomized last July when current Speaker Robert DeLeo held a stack of Senate bills hostage to extract a compromise on race-track slots from Senate President Therese Murray.
To be sure, it isn't inevitable that the House must operate as it now does, with the Speaker directing and micro-managing virtually every move. Committee chairs and individual members were given far greater latitude to act independently 25 years ago, under George Keverian, who perhaps not coincidentally was the last Speaker to avoid becoming a felon.
And it's very hard to predict how well a unicameral legislature would work in practice, since only one state uses it: Nebraska, since 1934.
But really, how much worse can it be? Let's torch the House — I have a feeling we won't miss it.