A state representative recalls approaching a veteran House member this past year and asking how he intended to vote on an upcoming roll call. “I have this philosophy about voting,” replied the representative, a committee chair. “I look up on the board and see how the Speaker voted — and that’s how I vote.”
|Railroading the law|
House leadership, stressing the need to pass the transportation-bond bill without delay this week, told members not to propose any amendments — but then asked them to approve the inclusion of 17 amendments tacked on by the Senate. Only three House Democrats rose to complain about it — two of whom, Frank Hynes and Paul Casey, are not seeking re-election this fall. (Martin Walsh was the third.) Most did as instructed, adopting the entire batch of Senate amendments on a vote of 114 to 40 Tuesday.
This appears to be the governing philosophy, quite literally, under the State House dome during the reign of Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi.
DiMasi’s overwhelming victory in the recent casino vote — in which only 34 of 140 Democrats voted against his plan to banish the bill for further study — was actually, as meager as it was, an unusual show of dissent.
Prior to the casino vote, Democrats in the House of Representatives had cast a total of just 567 votes in opposition to the Speaker in the current legislative session that began in January 2007, according to a Phoenix analysis. That’s an average of about four dissents per member, or one out of every 40 roll-call votes on bills, amendments, and rulings.
That’s a breathtaking decline even from the previous session, which saw nearly 3000 instances of Democrats “voting off,” as it’s called in the chamber. In the session prior to that, under Speaker Tom Finneran, that figure was greater than 5000.
The lock-step floor votes are only one manifestation of the lack of dissent, debate, or even discussion in the lower House, as described to the Phoenix by aides, close observers, and quite a number of Democratic legislators themselves — nearly all of whom, naturally, agreed to speak only with the promise of anonymity. Even members supportive of DiMasi don’t want to be caught talking about this topic. Several members were quite specific about how generically the Phoenix must refer to them (no reference to the area of the state they hail from, any committee they serve on, or even their gender), and more than one insisted on being called only on personal cell phones, for fear that State House secretaries are snitching to the Speaker about incoming calls.
Floor debate is almost nonexistent in the current House. A small cadre — primarily DiMasi, House Ways and Means Chair Robert DeLeo of Winthrop, Speaker Pro Tempore Thomas Petrolati of Ludlow, and their staffs — make all the decisions about legislation moving through committees. Members often don’t even see bills until shortly before they are rushed to the floor for vote, a practice that observers say has increased significantly under DiMasi. Input from committee members? Forget it: this past week, when Ways and Means “voted” the multi-billion-dollar transportation bond bill through to the floor, they learned of it less than four hours before it happened, via an e-mail from DeLeo telling them he was releasing the (dramatically revised) bill in that afternoon’s session, with the committee’s (unsolicited) recommendation for passage.