Columnist Lindsay Sabadosa: Transparency changes that go beyond symbolism

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston

Thursday, July 22, 2021

‘Thanks a lot. You have single-handedly made it harder for your constituents to engage in the legislative process.”

Always lovely to open Twitter to find someone yelling at you. As much as I love the platform, I find it difficult to respond, with nuance, in 150 characters. But then I wonder, if you’re asking me on Twitter, is nuance of concern?

So why this Twitter-barrage? Recently, the House debated its rules package, which has garnered attention due to advocacy groups that have been pushing for what they have dubbed “transparency amendments.” Those three amendments would have amended the House-only rules in three ways: they would have made committee votes public, set an eight-year term limit on the Speaker, and given legislators 72 hours to read a bill before a vote. In theory, that all sounds great, right? Let’s take them one-by-one.

Bills “dying” (or not making it out of committee) is a perpetual source of frustration, and people want to know why. The rules, as passed, align with the joint committee rules and report the names of those voting against a bill in committee while providing an aggregate count of those voting yes. The amendment would have changed it so all names would have been published. Here’s the rub. A quick glance at the House-only committees reveals why this amendment is all smoke and mirrors: with limited exception, they don’t poll.

What has been widely ignored is that these are primarily procedural committees. They schedule bills, vet them for constitutionality, and handle House operations. Innocent of logic, advocates demanded legislators vote on an amendment that would have revealed absolutely nothing about which bills are advanced and by whom. Worse still, we were told that doing so was the peak of transparency. No one had the courage to admit that a yes vote was symbolic.

Symbolism is the currency of advocates, but when we leave a rally, we demand concrete action. That’s the role of the Legislature.

The same holds true for the amendment to add term limits to the Speaker. Since House rules are voted on each session, while we can establish precedent, we cannot bind future legislatures to follow rules from a previous session. The rules begin when legislators vote on them and they expire at the end of the session. In fact, each party votes for their respective leader at the start of the session before we take up rules. In a classic case of “do as I say but not as I do,” the Republican Party, lauded for their “transparency” vote, voted overwhelmingly for this amendment while also voting for the same minority lader for the ninth time (i.e. 18 years running).

Finally, there was the amendment to have 72 hours to read a bill. The House is currently required by law to read bills out loud three times. That’s why, before a bill is passed, it goes through a committee called Bills in Third Reading (one of those procedural House-only committees). Those who argue that a bill needs 72 hours after it is released from its final committee and before its floor vote are ignoring the long process through which bills pass and the multiple ways legislators and the public can and should intervene along the way. This is something I didn’t realize before I started passing bills, but there are times where experience informs.

While there are bills that are significant where more time would always be welcome, a blanket rule that slows down everything shows a lack of understanding about the legislative process, even with a provision to allow the rule to be waived with a two-thirds vote, which allows for more minority rule of House business in a chamber where it is already easier to stop a bill than pass one.

Unfortunately, a focus on these three amendments as the pinnacle of transparency has led to actual transparent measures that were added to the rules receiving no attention, such as continued hybrid access to hearings, broadcasting informal sessions, and required reports for bills to show if and how a bill was changed in committee, making the above 72-hour amendment moot.

Those changes are vastly more significant than any of the proposed changes would have been and will offer real transparency and accessibility to constituents. Sadly though, they don’t fit into a snappy tweet or feed into a political climate that eschews nuance.

Those changes are the result of conversations between legislators who do listen to their constituents’ calls for transparency and accessibility and have asked for meaningful changes, not just symbolism. If you tuned into the recent hearing for the Work and Family Mobility Act where speakers had multilingual interpretation and no one waited nine hours to testify, you see that progress.

Is it good enough? Of course not. But it was tangible. And as for the “transparency amendments.” Well, sometimes the Emperor really doesn’t have any clothes, even if he tries to argue that they are just transparent.

Lindsay Sabadosa is a Northampton resident and the state representative for the 1st Hampshire District. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.