Why Massachusetts Should Get Rid of Its Bicameral Legislative System

In the case of our state legislature, two bodies are not better than one.

state house

Photo by Samantha Carey for Boston Magazine

People often think I’m joking when I say that Massachusetts should fire the entire state House of Representatives. Recent events show why I am very serious: the problem is the bicameral. Blow it up. One lawmaking body is all we need.

Example number one is the ongoing showdown between the state Senate and House over the nature of joint committees. Joint committees, in which members of both chambers attempt to work together on legislation they will later work separately on, is such a grossly dysfunctional concept, even the malfunctioning federal Congress doesn’t stoop to that low of a level of organization. Nor do the vast majority of other state legislatures.

Massachusetts does. In good circumstances, it works poorly, and only the elderly with strong memories recall good circumstances. Most often, joint committees are places where issues go to die quiet deaths, until such time as House leadership decides how it chooses to proceed. The House has greater control over the committees, because they get more voting members, because there are more of them, which is because they represent fewer people.

For the same reasons, the House tends to require more centralized control, and tends toward small provincial concerns over broader state concerns. This is why the federal government gave less power to the big, myopic, lower House. In Massachusetts, we effectively give it veto power over the upper chamber’s ability to even debate, or hold hearings, on potential legislation. 

The state Senate—the functional chamber here, but only by comparison—has finally suggested changing the joint committee rules to allow them to occasionally proceed with the business of legislation without the House. The House has responded as if Senate President Stan Rosenberg had seized munitions from the Old Powder House. The Senate has in turn initiated its version of the raid on Concord: a study of how to set up its own committees.

Now, the second example of why we need to get rid of the House of Reps took place at the end of April, as Speaker Robert DeLeo and House Ways and Means chair Brian Dempsey presented the supposedly necessary other 138 members of the House the annual budget they would vote on. The State House News Service reported on the sizzling pace of adoption: more than 1,000 amendments were filed, and yet the entire matter was handled with 17 roll call votes. How? Leadership decides what to adopt, and rolls them up into a handful of “consolidated amendments”—if you want your item adopted, you have to vote for the whole enchilada. Most of the remainder are then withdrawn, rather than risk offending the higher powers by forcing an unwanted vote. Only a few dozen remained, according to those I’ve spoken with, and almost all were dispatched with voice votes because nobody dared demand a real vote.

These techniques are nothing new, although the extent of the leadership heavy-handedness—or rank-and-file meekness—was well beyond even recent norms, several lobbyists tell me. Not a coincidence that this comes on the heels of DeLeo’s removal of his own term limit as Speaker. Virtually no public debate on any of it. In fact, just to ensure nobody managed to have a discussion, as the News Service reported, “new rope lines [were] erected by House Speaker Robert DeLeo to ease members’ paths to the chamber (and limit their forced interaction with lobbyists and reporters).

Which leads nicely to example number three, coming to my attention via a MetroWest Daily News editorial. It seems that the legislature zipped a law through virtually unnoticed last year, requiring drivers to use headlights in the rain. The law just took effect, and it turns out it requires ridiculously high insurance surcharges for those cited for this relatively minor infraction.

The House, which initiated the original bill, has now unanimously passed a fix, which heads to the Senate and then the Governor. But if it was such an obvious mistake, how did it get passed in the first place?

Well, by completely shutting down all discussion about it. This is how lawmaking works these days; with the two chambers forced to negotiate everything, it all jams up until the end of the two-year formal session, when leadership horse-trades and bargains over bills still pending, and others backlogged in conference committee. Conference committees are a bicameral necessity, where bills from the two chambers disappear into a black void to eventually, perhaps, emerge in new form to be passed without further alteration if at all.

In the final days, or hours, of the session, bills finally spew forth, often substantially rewritten, sometimes bundled with other bills, and are rushed to the floor for votes with the ink still dry. Members have little choice but to place blind faith and vote. Lobbyists and other interested parties who actually know about the subject matter scramble to see whether any obvious stupidity has been committed, but have little hope of beating the clock.

The headlight bill screw-up is hardly an anomaly. In a near-disaster in the final moments of last year’s session, the legislature passed a major economic-development bill that was so full of typos—“Sections XX and XX are hereby repealed,” one provision read—there was serious question of whether it could be salvaged.

The bicameral legislature is not the only piece of the dysfunction, but without it, much of the problem would disappear.

And the reality is that there is no point to the separate chambers. There are reasons at the federal level: the two chambers represent different entities (states versus population), and have significantly different functions (ratifying treaties and confirming nominees, for example). Neither is true of the Massachusetts legislature. It is, essentially, two identical bodies trying to do the same job, with each able to stymie the other.

Imagine your own company department, co-existing with another just like it, with both forced to agree on every detail before proceeding with anything. It’s like that, only worse because everybody involved is worried about re-election.

So blow up one chamber, decide how many to have in the one remaining, and let’s get to work already.