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Like Thieves in the Night

Michael J. Ring

Massachusetts state government is once again embroiled in scandal in the wake of a Boston Herald story detailing a night of drinking and partying on Beacon Hill, as the House of Representatives sat in an all-night session considering the state budget.

The newspaper described an atmosphere of debauchery and revelry on Beacon Hill that night, as members retired to committee offices to drink and party or fell asleep at their desks in the House chamber. One member sponsored a beer and wine tasting. Another is rumored to have had his leg shaven after he fell asleep. Members chanted “Toga!” as one representative gave an emotional speech on a gun-control amendment. And an abuse the Herald terms as “phantom voting” appears to have been widespread as court officers voted for members who were asleep or absent from the chamber.

The drunken spree, continuing well into the wee hours of the morning, was absolutely inappropriate, and the unprofessional behavior of the representatives involved should give all Bay Staters pause. Constituents are owed an apology by the legislators involved. Representatives, knowing full well the recent scandals surrounding Big Dig management and Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift’s personal use of state resources, should be acting with extreme caution to project an image of state government as honest and trustworthy. Clearly, they have failed.

But beyond the headlines about partying and pranks, even more serious breaches of the public trust have emerged from this year’s budget process. The flap over phantom voting, as well as the insertion of sweeping amendments designed to undercut the state’s clean-elections and lobbying laws, demonstrate the clear need to change the way by which the House conducts its business. And the responsibility to make those changes must fall squarely at the feet of Speaker Thomas Finneran -- whose authoritarian leadership style is clearly hampering debate in the House.

An unknown individual cast unauthorized votes in the name of Representative Kevin Murphy after the representative had left the State House early Friday morning to catch a flight to South Carolina. Anecdotal evidence indicates that unauthorized votes were cast in the names of several other sleeping or absent representatives. House policy rightly limits proxy voting to an extreme set of circumstances. Only members who have physical disabilities, or members who are serving as acting speaker and must remain at the rostrum, may vote by proxy as prescribed in the House rules.

However, Finneran conceded last week he allows court officers to vote for members who are in meetings during roll calls. The speaker, after an angry initial response to the Herald stories, decided to probe the proxy allegations after learning of the votes cast in Murphy’s absence. This investigation must consider the wide berth with which Finneran allows proxy voting. It is hardly burdensome to ask members to leave a meeting for a moment to cast a vote themselves -- our federal representatives in Washington do so all the time. Voting for one’s constituents is the ultimate duty of our representatives, and this sham of proxy voting, which is so obviously open to tainting and corruption, must be stopped.

Finneran will also probe whether to end all-night sessions on the budget. But House rules already prohibit debate after 10 p.m., and one Finneran dissenter, liberal Democratic Representative Christopher Hodgkins, noted it was Finneran who allowed the 10 p.m. rule to be suspended in the first place.

And then there is the matter of changes to the state’s elections and ethics laws. The shameful votes preceded by little debate to gut these good-government statutes are an example of government at its worst, and Finneran and his lieutenants should be ashamed of their actions.

The Clean Elections law, passed overwhelmingly by voters as a referendum in November 1998, sets up a system of public funding of candidates who agree to strict spending limits. House and Senate leaders, however, have dragged their feet on its implementation for the past year and a half, and the House’s action would require the law be suspended until the House and Senate could study its fiscal implications -- a move effectively killing the law and sustaining the status quo of rampant, uncontrolled campaign spending in Massachusetts. This gem was attached to the budget on a voice vote with barely any debate.

Also quietly slipped into the budget is a provision that would soften the state’s strict lobbyist regulations. Under this rider a lobbyist could hide certain costs, including some dinners with members of the Legislature. The necessity of the current regulations is shown by the case of ex-speaker Charles Flaherty, whose cozy relations with lobbyists cost him his job and earned him a court conviction. There is real reason to fear repeal of these provisions would return the House to the old days of easy lobbyist access to legislation.

Since becoming speaker after Flaherty’s resignation, Finneran has ruled the House with an iron fist, having little tolerance for dissent. While he is certainly entitled to use his position to advance his own causes, Finneran must ensure he is doing so in a fair and just manner. Attaching riders to the budget late at night, when most representatives are barely (if even) awake, and allowing little debate on amendments that would squelch strong reform laws, is not government in good faith.

But ultimately, the rank-and-file House members are at fault as well for their unwillingness to challenge Finneran’s autocratic style. Over the past several years both liberal Democrats and Republicans have grown restless with Finneran’s leadership but seem unwilling to challenge the speaker. Republicans, whose votes actually elevated Finneran to the position of speaker over a liberal Democrat, are afraid to challenge Finneran since they know the next speaker would probably be more liberal. Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are afraid to speak out for fear of watching Finneran and his lieutenants kill their pet projects.

And there, apparently, is the drive to drink. As one House Democrat told the Herald, “There certainly was no reason for anyone to remain sober, because there was nothing for us to contribute.” Finneran and Company were calling all the shots, and voices of debate and dissent were to be left at the door.

The House is now left with two options if it is to regain credibility with the voters. Either Finneran himself apologizes for this month’s debacle and places new rules or enforces existing rules barring late-night sessions, limiting proxy voting, and guaranteeing debate and roll-call votes on serious matters, or dissenters in both parties reach across ideological differences and make these changes for the speaker.

In any case, it is high time the Massachusetts House stopped acting like thieves in the night, with members trashing the laws which ensure their proper conduct and behavior while their constituents are sound asleep.