State House voting transparency measures disappear in conference committees

The biennial bill-reporting deadline came and went last week, but an 11-month legislative disagreement means the public may never know how their representatives and senators voted in deliberations over whether proposals should advance or fall short.

The House and Senate each supported some form of pulling back the curtain on how panels vote, but Democrats couldn't agree on a reform plan and existing legislative rules do not require joint committees to publish any breakdown of where members stand on bills they report.

Some joint committees could still volunteer that information, but the failure of House and Senate Democrats to find consensus on the transparency measures means that the individual preference of each panel's chairs determines whether a vote breakdown becomes public.

At the start of the 2021-2022 lawmaking session, the Legislature adopted joint rules that governed the 2019-2020 session — which do not require disclosure of joint committee votes — as a temporary placeholder.

The Senate's version of a joint rules package for the 2021-2022 session (S 14) would have made "any recorded votes on a favorable or adverse report on an individual bill" publicly available online. The House's version (H 68) was more limited, calling for a committee to post names only for committee members who vote against a bill alongside "an aggregate tally of members voting in the affirmative, members not voting and members reserving their rights."

Both branches insisted on their own approach to the joint rules, with differences including other sections covering public notice of hearings and access to testimony submitted by the public, and legislative leaders on March 22, 2021 tasked a six-member conference committee with finding compromise.

That panel quickly produced a limited agreement (S 39) that formalized the joint committee structure, but it left the remainder of the proposed joint rules packages — which total 31 pages in the Senate and 45 pages in the House — untouched.

Today, more than halfway through the session and with only a bit more than five months remaining until the end of formal sessions where the most substantial bills are considered, last session's rules remain in place on a temporary basis, modified only in a few sections outlined in the conference committee's partial report.

The conference committee's membership has been depleted. One of the three Senate conferees, former Sen. Joe Boncore, resigned in September for a job leading the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. The lead House negotiator, former Majority Leader Claire Cronin, left in January to become U.S. ambassador to Ireland.

Neither chamber has appointed successors to fill those positions, according to the Senate clerk's office.

House-only and Senate-only committees, including each branch's Ways and Means Committee, must provide some information about how they vote under chamber-specific rules in place. Mirroring each branch's proposal for joint committees, House panels must publish names of members who vote against bills and aggregate numbers of supporters and abstainers, while Senate panels must post each member's recorded vote.

A section of the Legislature's rules known as Joint Rule 10 sets the first Wednesday in February in even years as the date by which most committees must give up-or-down recommendations to all bills under their purview.

While joint committees have made decisions on scores of bills — giving them favorable or adverse reports, or sending them to dead-end studies — committees are also able to easily hold on to bills with extension orders.

Even after Joint Rule 10 Day has passed, determining the fate of a bill can be tricky. For many bills, the online bill history still does not list if the committee pushed back its reporting deadline, and the only way to deduce that information is to study the bill numbers listed in an extension order.

The bill history is also slow to update for legislation on which committees act. Last week, for example, the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee sent to a study a Rep. Mike Connolly bill (H 4135) that would create a commission to review and evaluate happy-hour policies, effectively killing it.

That information is only apparent on the "reported out of committee" tab on the committee's website. As of midday Monday, the bill history for H 4135 still listed the most recent step as a Nov. 8 hearing.


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