Wednesday, November 20, 2002

What's wrong with the legislature? The tyranny of deadlines has not been kind to Michael Jonas's fine overview of what's wrong with the Massachusetts legislature, published in the current issue of CommonWealth magazine. (The piece, "Beacon Ill," is online, but free registration is required.) Not only had the race for governor not been decided, but Jonas had to turn in his piece even before we knew that state senator Bob Travaglini would be the next Senate president. But this is good stuff, and the lack of timeliness should not stop you from reading it.

One eye-opener: Senate president Tom Birmingham refused Jonas's attempts to interview him. Now, it's fair to point out that Jonas was doing his reporting in the midst of Birmingham's hard-fought campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. But the notion that one of the state's two top legislative leaders couldn't spare an hour to talk about substance is repellant. Farewell, Mr. President. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

There's not an awful lot new here for political junkies, but those who follow State House antics with less-than-breathless enthusiasm will appreciate Jonas's efforts to lay out recent legislative history -- and especially how it came to pass that virtually all power was concentrated in the hands of Birmingham and House Speaker Tom Finneran. Let's not kid ourselves: rank-and-file legislators have never had much influence on Beacon Hill. But during the 1970s and '80s, committee chairs held great sway. It wasn't exactly democracy, but neither was it a dictatorship.

These days even the chairs count for nothing. The symbol of legislative gridlock in recent years is that photo of Finneran and Birmingham, negotiating the budget at a glacial pace on a State House patio. "Now there's no one to talk to," Citizens for Limited Taxation executive director Barbara Anderson told Jonas. "There's no playing field at all. They're just following the leadership."

Jonas also makes two key points. Writing before the gubernatorial election, he asserted that there might actually be more hope for change if Democrat Shannon O'Brien won rather than Republican Mitt Romney. "After all," Jonas wrote, "in the absence of true two-party competition, schisms in the state's dominant party, played out through shifting coalitions and alliances, may be the next best thing for the democratic debate." But with Romney heading up a party so tiny that Republican legislators can't even override his vetoes, state politics is likely to devolve into the Romney, Trav, and Finneran Show. Actually, make that the Finneran, Trav, and Romney Show.

Jonas's other point is simply to remind us of how accustomed we've become to the shameful inertia that now exists:

What is most remarkable about the dysfunction that has set in on Beacon Hill is just how unremarkable it has become. There is little expectation that budgets will be completed on time or that lawmakers will have significant roles in writing them. Members meekly approve major policy changes through outside sections tacked onto the budget, despite misgivings over their implications. Committee chairs stand idly by as the flow and content of legislation is controlled from above.

More than anything else, Jonas's piece underscores the harm that has been caused by the state's devolution into a one-party system. Think of how many times voters -- even liberals -- have cast their lots with Republican governors simply to keep the entire system from falling into the hands of the Democrats: John Volpe, Frank Sargent, Frank Hatch (well, okay, he lost, but he won most of the liberal vote), Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci. Romney is quite a bit more conservative than those Republicans, which is the only reason his margin of victory was even close. It's not surprising that his campaign only caught fire when he started targeting the "Gang of Three" -- Finneran, Travaglini, and O'Brien -- and raised the specter of Democratic insiders running amock.

The single most important thing Romney can do during the next four years is to rebuild the Republican Party into a moderate, reform-minded force that competes in elections and wins enough to make a difference.

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