Close-up photo of a middle-aged man, Massachusetts State Sen. Mike Barrett
Massachusetts State Sen. Mike Barrett; photo via Facebook.

LETTER: Barrett condemns committee’s bicameral boondoggle

“It’s almost as if the House is done with the delicate power-sharing that enables joint committees to work."

Statement of Sen. Mike Barrett
Senate Chair, Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy (TUE),
on the challenges confronting the Joint Committee

In recent sessions of the Legislature, the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities & Energy (TUE), of which I’m Senate chair, has produced two nation-leading laws dealing with climate change. Unfortunately, the House chair of TUE has just precipitated a break with the Senate members of the Joint Committee, which means prospects for building on this distinguished record are not quite so bright.

I’m listed as the co-sender today of an official joint committee hearing notice, along with the House chair. The House chair knows I haven’t approved the scheduling of the hearing. There’s a small chance this is merely a serious error. Otherwise, I regret to say, the use of my name appears to be fraudulent,

I respectfully ask my colleague, the House chair, to reconsider his decision to schedule a hearing of the Committee without the concurrence of the Senate and without the consent of the Committee’s Senate chair and Senate members.

The misrepresentation aside, the House chair’s unilateral act, which I have to assume is the first of what will be others, also violates the Joint Rules of the General Court approved by both branches earlier this year and viewable today on the Legislature’s website. Joint Rule 1C provides, “All joint standing committees shall schedule committee hearings and executive sessions upon agreement of the chairs.”

Joint committees are the basic building blocks of the Massachusetts Legislature. They conduct the hearings, write and rewrite bills, and otherwise address the public’s interest in education, healthcare, transportation and a myriad of other issues.

Other Senate chairs are being pressed along similar lines. It’s almost as if the House is done with the delicate power-sharing that enables joint committees to work. It wants either to dominate the joint committees due to the House’s sheer numerical advantage or drive us towards the Congressional model, in which the House and Senate handle bills separately. Either way, this is quite a turn in the road.

Like other complex organizations, the Legislature needs to follow basic procedures in order to operate. It starts with the Joint Rules of the General Court referenced above. But many joint committees flesh out the details with rules of their own. And if, at the outset of a given two-year session, Senate and House members of a joint committee cannot agree on a new set of rules by which to work, the tradition of the Massachusetts Legislature is to “carry over” the prior rules of the committee.

In the case of TUE, we had a perfectly good set of prior rules, first adopted in 2019-2020. They carried over, by mutual consent of the House and Senate chairs of the Committee, for the 2021-2022 session. These same prior rules are available to us now, for 2023-2024. Among other provisions that call for equal power-sharing, Rule 5 provides that the co-chairs “shall establish a pubic hearing schedule and shall determine the groupings of similar bills to be heard on each hearing date.”

I’ve told the House chair that the Senate members of the Committee find these rules acceptable once again. He has replied that he does not.

I wish I could say that this is inside baseball and no big deal. But, as I’ve mentioned, TUE handles climate policy for the Massachusetts Legislature. If it’s not allowed to operate as it has in the past, with the Senate and House as equal partners, this could be a big deal indeed for the many Massachusetts residents concerned about climate change.

The difference in numbers between the 160-member House and the 40-member Senate poses a challenge to the conduct of legislative business. Other places with similar imbalances, like the U.S. Congress, don’t even try to get Senators and Representatives working together at this level. Instead, as I’ve mentioned, the Congress breaks up into House-only committees and Senate-only committees, so that Senators are not outvoted on almost all matters, large and small, without regard to the merits.

How does the Massachusetts Legislature deal with its numerical imbalance? By doing business through committees helmed by Senate and House co-chairs and consisting of both Senators and Representatives.

By means of formal rules, as is the case with TUE, or through informal understandings, these joint committees then decide a number of key issues not by simple majority votes, which would always favor the larger House, but by consensus. What often ensues from the requirement of consensus is a spirited but productive negotiation. This is how TUE — House and Senate members both — fashioned its breakthrough climate bills.

But now, in defiance of General Court precedent and his own earlier decisions, the House chair of TUE declines to carry over the written procedures followed by the Committee in the prior session. He also turns thumbs down on any informal understanding whose effect would be to keep power within the Committee equal. The only option he offers is a rules redraft in which a simple majority would make key decisions, which means the House would prevail whenever it wanted to.

For all intents and purposes, he’s declaring that, for climate policy, the era of doing joint committee work by consensus and negotiation is over.

This appears to be an early instance of a broader effort by the House to curb consensual decision-making within joint committees. Whether limited to climate questions or extended beyond them, this becomes a difficult moment for an important institution of Massachusetts government.

The new arrangements, if they stand, will make staying within the joint committee structure increasingly uncomfortable for members of the outnumbered Senate.

I’m concerned that the House’s pushback against power-sharing masks a pushback against substance. If the very idea of parity between the branches in joint committee work were to be tossed overboard and the Senate were to lose its equal voice, I fear that many bills would end up being less bold.

Specifically, I worry that the progressive climate initiatives of Senators would receive less attention and that this, in turn, would harm the priorities of grassroots advocates, the catalysts for many of Massachusetts’ most innovative policies.

To reduce the likelihood of this happening, on Friday, May 19 — the day immediately following the first hearing scheduled unilaterally by the House chair — Senate members of TUE will hold their own hearing on the same subject matter. House members of TUE are welcome to take part in this Friday proceeding.

It could be that such a parallel process will become formalized and continue for the duration of the two-year session. If so, there will be considerable costs in terms of time, money, and inconvenience. Still, if we have to, we will make the transition and preserve parity in policymaking — the best way, I think, to protect the public interest.

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