OC’s MA youth leaders faced unprecedented pushback from legislators during our transparency lobbying campaign with Act On Mass. Many of them have aggressively challenged our arguments and offered confusing and conflicting counterpoints. So we took matters into our own hands and checked with the same authority that legislators themselves use, the House Clerk.
Tl;dr Befriend your Clerk!
For those of you who want the nerdy deep-dive, here’s what we learned. The following text in italics was read and fact-checked by the current Clerk, Steven T. James himself.
If a MA House Committee or Joint Committee votes on a House Bill, the Committee files a report in the LAWS computer system, with the following information:
- Committee Name
- House Member carrying the report (usually the committee chair)
- Bill Number (and accompanying bill numbers)
- Nature of report, e.g. Favorable, Favorable with changes, Study Order, Ought Not To Pass
The committee also sends an email to the House Clerk to indicate who “reserved rights” (to debate or vote against later). Reserve rights information is not currently accessible on a bill’s individual website page or the journal, but may be acquired by contacting the House Clerk’s office. There is no record of who takes “No Action” if they either miss the poll accidentally or intentionally abstain.
What does this mean? As of now, legislators’ committee voting records are either buried or incomplete. We have to dig through the House Journal, a pdf 100s of pages long, to find out who “dissents”. We have to call the House Clerk directly with the latest bill names and numbers in hand, if we want to find out who votes favorably or “reserves rights” (think of it like a spicy abstention). Most importantly there is no public record of representatives who don’t participate in committee votes, either because they forget or they strategically avoid voting.
Why does this matter? To win bold legislation, advocates and constituents need to be able to engage, learn from, and hold accountable legislators who kill bills in committee. We cannot do this when we don’t know how committee members vote, either because key information is buried or not even collected in the first place.
This also means that the existing system allows legislators to pledge to support bills publicly and then avoid that responsibility the moment they enter the building and leave the public eye. They can join their chair in an “ought not to pass” vote, trusting that most of the public will never call the Clerk. (Even if the public checked the Journal, their name would not be listed so long as they went along with their Chair.) Or they can duck the responsibility altogether and not vote at all.
And there are so many reasons a legislator–particularly the many moderate democrats–would want to keep their head low in committee. They may be concerned about their relationship with their chair, or other committee members with whom they constantly negotiate. They may disagree with their constituents and feel scared to face the political consequences of disagreeing openly. They may lose the support of more conservative colleagues who will allegedly “only vote if their constituents cannot see.” They may fear jeopardizing their rank, their pay, and their relationship to leadership. Combine these pressures with a lack of transparency and their desire to coast under the radar, their vehement fear of rules changes becomes understandable. Wrong, but understandable.
What can we do? Luckily, this next step is simple. Make the House Bill Pages look like this Senate Committee Bill page:
Since the Senate can make different rules for “Senate Only” committees, they’ve already created a system that advocates, constituents, and legislators can all work with. In this case, we know who is responsible for the results of a vote. We know exactly what to ask whom. We know exactly which legislators and their districts we still have to win over, to pass the policy we need.
This is far from a silver bullet. We have so much more to do to make MA democracy more transparent and to win game-changing climate policy. But next time your Rep misleads with the line “you’re lying and this transparency campaign is a waste of time since all committee votes are already on the public record,” take a breath, call your Clerk, check your facts, and call their bluff!