Mass betrayal

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  June 19, 2009

They also reject the notion that DiMasi ruled in a closed, top-down fashion.

But that's just wrong, says State Senator Jamie Eldridge, a progressive who served in the House from 2003 to 2008. "I had great hopes when Sal DiMasi came in — that the process would become more open," says Eldridge. "To be blunt, I do not think that it did."

090619_dimasi_main
LOYAL FLUSH: Ex-Speaker Sal DiMasi — who was recently indicted on federal corruption charges — was enabled by loyal members of the House who rubber-stamped his bills and quashed initiatives he disapproved.
Push from within?
Despite hostility toward the State House, and the loud calls for reform legislation, some things have changed since DeLeo took over four months ago.

The House instituted an eight-year limit on the Speaker's term in February, for instance. That's exactly the sort of reform that limits consolidation of power, and that conventional wisdom says can never get enacted. Insiders say it's evidence of reformers gaining strength.

DeLeo has also agreed to hold caucuses to brief legislators on bills at least a day before a vote. Similarly, the new Speaker has been less apt to bundle large numbers of amendments. Those are quiet but significant changes — many of DiMasi's most questionable actions were included amid last-minute flurries of amendments, often presented to members in take-it-or-leave-it fashion as little as an hour before the roll call. The results were predictable: one legislator says almost no lawmakers were aware when they voted on an environmental bill last year that a provision had been slipped in benefiting the Buzzard's Bay wind-farm plan of DiMasi's friend Jay Cashman.

Committee chairs also insist DeLeo is giving them the freedom to act independently. "He is not commanding from on high," says Walz, who chairs the education committee. Of course, chairs said the same under DiMasi; who is going to admit their own impotence? But Walz says DeLeo has given her no indication of his preference on the issue of charter schools, for instance, which is a hot topic currently on her plate.

Some insiders also caution not to underestimate the role of the liberal representatives in last week's passage of a strong pension-reform bill, which eliminates opportunities for abuse by lawmakers, and by their allies throughout state government. That bill was ultimately altered to apply to current officeholders, a provision many in the House strongly resisted — including DeLeo, according to some.

All true. On the other hand, conference committees, where the House and Senate work out compromises between differing versions of legislation, are still routinely closed to prying eyes. (Ironically, committee leaders have even shut the doors for recent conferences on the reform bills aimed at increasing openness and transparency.) And aside from the Speaker term limits, the changes that have been made are not codified. There seems to be little movement in that direction.

Skeptics say that, without rules limiting the power of the Speaker, it is only a matter of time before leadership goes right back to the old, more controlling practices — under a future Speaker, or perhaps under the current one, once the current scandal-driven spotlight on reform fades.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Deval Patrick, Massachusetts House of Representatives, David Bernstien,  More more >
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