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Analysis: A Funny Thing Happened This Week At The State House

This article is more than 3 years old.

“If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”

That saying is often attributed to the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck .

He might also be OK keeping Beacon Hill legislative conference committees out of the limelight. But one committee met this week and conducted its business — gasp! — in public.

Some legislators might want you to believe that this conference committee was dealing with bills revamping the state’s public records laws (H-3858 and S-2127) had nothing to do with the committee’s decision not to close the meeting. Imagine the headlines if they had done just that?

For those of you not familiar with the ways of Beacon Hill, a conference committee is put together after both the House and Senate pass different versions of a similar bill. They are always made up of three representatives and three senators. Two of the reps and two of the senators are from the majority party (Democrats) and one rep and one senator are each from the minority party (Republicans). Rule 1A of the joint rules of the Senate and House of Representatives states clearly that the meetings “will be open to the public, unless a majority shall vote otherwise.” More often than not, the first order of business for these committees is to vote to close the sessions to the public.

This wasn’t always the case. The first conference committee I ever encountered was back in December 1980. The House and Senate couldn’t agree on how to fund the MBTA, which had run out of money a few weeks before the end of the year. The two branches were at odds with each other as to how much state money should be spent to keep the trains running. The conference committee held a public meeting and I remember the House chairman, John Finnegan, half-jokingly ask the crowd packed into the hearing room if anyone had any ideas.

"Why not split the difference between the two amounts?'’ I thought to myself. Both sides remained at odds, and ultimately the transit system shut down for a full day while a solution remained elusive. Ultimately, the conference committee met, and wound up splitting the difference, exactly as I had thought to myself.

Over the past few decades, more and more of the public’s business on Beacon Hill has been carried out behind closed doors. In addition to the closed conference committees, House and Senate caucuses are held immediately prior to formal sessions. These caucuses are closed to the public, and are presumably where a spirited discussion on an issue takes place before the members emerge and then “debate” the issue in the House or Senate chamber. In reality, these formal debates are nothing more than following the script that was written ahead of time in caucus.

Lawmakers have argued having the conference meetings closed allows for the free-flow of debate among members who might otherwise be inhibited if those conversations took place before a watchful public eye.

“We’ve always been for open conference committees,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, one of the groups advocating for an update of the state’s public records laws. “I think members do find that it can be embarrassing to have frank conversations in public. That’s unfortunately the price of transparency, sometimes you get embarrassed.”

While the conference committee on public records will be conducting its business in public, it’s pretty safe to say this won’t be a trend. Currently there are five conference committees working on legislation. Four of them are closed to the public.

Lawmakers adhere to an unwritten custom of not speaking of what is taking place in the committees. Reporters are occasionally told the conferees are meeting, or “are making progress,” but like a Papal Conclave, we don’t find out the results of the meetings until a compromise bill emerges, and is presented to both branches for acceptance.

Steve Brown is WBUR's State House bureau chief and a contributor to WBUR Politicker.

Steve Brown Twitter Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.

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