In 2019, a bill was brought to the state legislature that would make Massachusetts the 3rd US state to ban child marriage. This bill passed the Senate unanimously. However, in 2021, it is still legal for children, primarily girls, to be married off by their parents in our state. Despite broad popular support from both the public and the MA Senate, the State House sent the bill to committee. It never received an actual vote. Like many other pieces of legislation, the State House is where important bills go to die.
The act to ban childhood marriage is far from alone in this experience. In 2011, Rep. Jason Lewis (now Malden’s state senator) introduced a bill to enact a single-payer Medicare For All program for the state of Massachusetts. This bill was sent to study by the State House in 2012. Subsequent versions were sent to study again, in 2014 and 2016. In 2018, it died without action. It still has not come to a vote. Similar fates have been met by important bills on climate change, taxation, abortion, and immigrant rights.
Why is this? Why is it so difficult for these critical issues to actually be brought to a vote? Why does it take decades for extremely popular legislation, like codifying abortion protection, to make its way through the MA legislature? Why is it so difficult for voters to be able to see for themselves what’s going on in their government?
Many of these problems can be traced back to the rules of the Massachusetts State House. Each legislative cycle, the House sets their own set of rules for how votes are cast and how their business of government is conducted. Generally, the rules of the previous session are carried forward for the new session, sometimes with very little review or public oversight.
These rules are the reason that constituents do not have access to their legislator’s voting record. They are the reason that bills can be quietly shelved, stonewalled, or otherwise delayed, without cause, and without any backlash. The public isn’t allowed to see who is killing these bills, so we cannot ask why, and cannot replace the legislators responsible. In fact, the Massachusetts State House is one of the least transparent in the country.
Observing these occurrences for years, sometimes decades, has led to the creation of a joint effort to fight against this cycle of ineffectiveness. The People’s House campaign is proposing three modest reforms to the MA House Rules:
- Make all committee votes public
- Ensure that bills are made public 72 hours before a vote
- Reinstate term limits for the house speaker
In December, a team of advocates, including myself, met with our state rep, Steve Ultrino, to explain the importance of these rules updates. Rep. Ultrino was patient and courteous, but not receptive. He stated that while he is happy to always be transparent and will gladly explain how he personally votes on any bill, he cannot speak for other legislators. He told us that he would speak with his colleagues to discuss our concerns.
But that is exactly the problem: a single honest representative is not enough to fix a secretive, dysfunctional State House. We need transparency and accountability to be the rule for all state reps, not a privilege that varies between districts and electoral cycles.
Given Rep. Ultrino’s personal commitment to transparency, we hoped that he would step up and help lead this effort. Steve Ultrino can help usher in a new era of openness to the State House, where citizens can be better informed, more active participants in our democracy.
One of the arguments we’ve heard against these reforms is that they are supported by conservatives. And it is true: Massachusetts conservatives have broadly supported similar efforts to modernize the State House rules. It is important to remember that conservatives are the longstanding minority party in Massachusetts. These reforms will make it harder for a single party to quietly behave however they like behind closed doors. For years, this is how the State House has operated.
The State House rules vote is coming up in early July. Last week, volunteers from The People’s House campaign met with Rep. Ultrino again. Rep. Ultrino strongly opposed all of our proposed reforms. We asked him why the State House rules couldn’t be brought up to the same level as the State Senate, where all committee votes are public, and he didn’t have an answer.
For transparency advocates, this response is both disappointing and frustrating. We fear that the State House as a body is more accountable to Democratic party leadership than it is to the public. In the past year, we have all seen the dangers of weakening democracy for the sake of maintaining power. MA House Democrats should take the initiative to strengthen our democracy, by enacting rules that promote openness, accountability, and trust in our government.
Here in Malden, the People’s House campaign has been endorsed unanimously by Our Revolution Malden and the Malden Democratic City Committee. This raises an important question: If the progressives, conservatives, and mainstream Democrats are in unanimous support, what grounds does Rep. Ultrino have to resist these reforms?
Bay Staters pride themselves on hailing from the birthplace of modern democracy. I hope that Rep. Ultrino will change his mind, and do his part to honor that legacy.
To learn more about The People’s House, please visit https://actonmass.org/the-campaign/.