House Democrats beat back attempts Wednesday to restore a term limit on the Speaker of the House and to provide additional time to review legislation before votes, adopting a package of internal rules that calls for the continuation of broadcasting all sessions online and makes public only the names of lawmakers who vote against bills in House committees.
After a lengthy debate that ended with the rejection of almost all proposed changes offered through floor amendments, the House voted 129-29 to adopt the rules which, starting Oct. 1, will govern the chamber's operations and internal policies for the 2021-2022 session.
The deliberations pitted a large majority of Democrats against a much smaller alliance of Republicans and a few progressive Democrats who have clashed with leadership in the past.
Representatives approved a small number of changes, voting to allow any member serving on active reserve military duty to cast a House vote remotely. Rep. Patrick Kearney, a U.S. Navy Reserve lieutenant who is currently serving in Africa, submitted that amendment. Representatives diagnosed with serious medical conditions would also be able to participate in sessions remotely under a change accepted on the floor, similar to an amendment that had been filed by Rep. Brad Hill.
Otherwise, they stood firm behind the combination of existing rules and modest updates that mandate all House sessions to be livestreamed, require publishing names of representatives who vote against advancing a bill through committee, and grant committee chairs discretion to convene hearings with a hybrid of in-person and remote participation.
Supporters said many of the changes build on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and the House's use of emergency rules, which will remain in place until the new package kicks in Oct. 1.
"The challenges over the last 14 months have made us work and function differently," said Rep. William Galvin of Canton, who chairs the House Rules Committee. "This experience has shown us a new way to operate and to utilize technology, both procedurally and administratively. As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to incorporate lessons learned, thereby providing for a more efficient, flexible and accessible legislative process."
The House rejected proposed changes aimed at publicizing more information about committee votes, granting lawmakers and the public additional time to review legislation, and imposing an eight-year term limit on the speaker's office.
Critics of the House have often contended that the Democrats who lead it operate with a top-down and secretive approach, stifling proposals they do not personally support and hiding most work behind closed doors.
Wednesday's votes drew fire from both ends of the ideological spectrum.
"House leadership and a lot of rank and file Democrats in the House showed today they will go to pretty enormous lengths to preserve their power," Ella McDonald, communications director for the Act on Mass group, said in an interview.
"This is the debate Speaker Ron Mariano was trying to avoid for 160 days," Paul Craney, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said in a statement." Speaker Mariano's stunt to delay the rules, while continually passing bills into law, seemed to have worked and our state democracy is weaker for it."
The new rules will not take effect until Oct. 1, 2021, nearly 10 months into the two-year lawmaking session. Under a separate order the House approved 130-30 on Wednesday (H 3929), emergency rules that have governed House operations since May 2020 and authorized practices such as remote voting will remain in place through the end of September.
Gov. Charlie Baker lifted the COVID-19 state of emergency on June 15, but Mariano told reporters his team wanted to keep temporary rules in place "until we were sure the pandemic was over."
"We're a little different than the Senate, we're a little different than the governor's office," Mariano said. "We have 160 members with aides, so now you're talking about bringing 320 people into the building. You don't have to be a genius to see what's going on around the building and how difficult access is into the building. We want to do this in stages, and we want to make sure we're prepared."