HOUSE LEADERS appear to be pushing majority rule in most of the Legislature’s joint committees, but the effort has had little impact so far except in the badly divided Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee.
The energy committee literally split in two on Thursday – House members heard testimony on bills with no senators present and senators plan to take testimony on Friday with no House members present.
Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington, the Senate chair of the committee, said the senators won’t return to meeting with their House counterparts until the House members agree to rules recognizing parity between the two branches.
That means the House and Senate chairs have to agree jointly on which bills will be heard at hearings and which bills will get acted on in executive sessions. Without parity, Barrett said, the Senate will lose leverage and House members will prevail most of the time because House members on the committee outnumber Senate members by almost a 2-1 margin.
Rep. Jeffrey Roy of Franklin, the House chair of the committee, portrayed Barrett as obstinate in a short speech at the start of Thursday’s hearing. “This is not only inefficient, it’s nonsensical and it is incurring unnecessary costs,” he said of the parallel hearings. “Moreover, it is inconvenient for the stakeholders and witnesses who wish to offer testimony.”
In an interview after the hearing, Roy said he wants to retain the joint committee structure but have committee decisions made by majority rule. He said he wants to let committee votes decide when hearings and executive sessions are held.
“If [senators] are concerned that the Democratic process will not favor their ideas, then maybe they should come up with other ideas,” Roy said. “We have a democratic process, majority should rule.”
Senate President Karen Spilka weighed in publicly on the issue for the first time Thursday, noting the policies of the Legislature are clear.
“As long as I have been a legislator, the joint committees have operated under the joint cooperation of the chairs on fundamental matters of order, such as scheduling hearings and votes,” Spilka said in a statement. “This understanding is firmly enshrined in our joint rules, which require scheduling ‘committee hearings and executive sessions upon agreement of the chairs.’ These joint rules were again agreed to in January of this year…. I expect all chairs to follow agreed-upon joint rules and to follow the long-established precedent of using committee rules from the previous session if unable to reach a new agreement on committee rules.”
Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro, the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health, said his House counterpart, Rep. Marjorie Decker of Cambridge, sent him a rules template that basically called for majority rule on all committee actions. Cyr said all of his Senate colleagues have received similar templates, suggesting a coordinated effort is afoot in the House to change the rules committee by committee.
Cyr acknowledged majority rule is fundamental to democracy but said it can only work if everyone has an equal vote. He said there are 160 House members and 40 Senate members, yet both chambers represent the same number of constituents. He said senators should have power parity with House members.
Cyr said he responded to Decker with a rules counter-proposal. When no agreement was reached, he said he and Decker decided to move forward to hold hearings without a rules agreement.
“We’re putting that aside,” Cyr said of the majority rule template. “We’re getting to work.”
In the Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee, the feuding House and Senate chairs are getting to work, but separately, not together.
“I’m a fan of the democratic process. I’m a fan of letting each vote count to push things out,” said Roy. The representative said his colleagues will vote to support the best ideas. “House members are going to vote no on a great climate policy just because it’s a Senate bill?” he asked.
Roy said instituting majority rule in committee would not limit the authority of the Senate. “They can do their ideas on the Senate floor, we’ll do our ideas on the House floor, and then we get together in conference and bring them together,” he said. “It’s a process that works.”