Reps open up about state of House-Senate relations
By State House News Service | August 4, 2016, 6:31 EDT
STATE HOUSE — The House and Senate may be done trading major policy proposals for the year, but the back-and-forth between members of both branches is only heating up.
The verbal barbs and finger-pointing started not long after the branches gaveled the end of formal sessions for the year in the early morning hours of Aug. 1.
What began with a criticism Saturday from Senate President Stanley Rosenberg of the House’s pace over the past two years escalated when two departing senators served up pointed critiques of House Speaker Robert DeLeo and their perception of his agenda and loyalties.
House leaders are now responding, rallying to the defense of their leader with some sharp tongues of their own, and in the process exposing the long-simmering tensions on Beacon Hill over the power balance at the State House.
“Crazy stuff,” said House Majority Ronald Mariano. “You have people who are leaving and never served in the House and didn’t learn the art of negotiation and it made for a difficult end of session.”
Sens. Benjamin Downing and Dan Wolf, both of whom are not seeking reelection, served on separate conference committees that raced to hash out deals with the House in the waning days of the session over energy and the use of non-compete clauses in contracts. Downing’s energy conference produced a deal, while Wolf’s panel did not.
“I think the House’s operating procedure is: Do as little as possible and still be able to say you did stuff. I just think that’s where Bob’s at,” Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, told the Boston Globe the next day. Both Downing and Wolf went on to accuse DeLeo of catering to the interests of big business.
Rep. Sarah Peake, a Provincetown Democrat and member of DeLeo’s leadership team, said she was “very disappointed” in the comments made by Downing and Wolf, who represents her district in the Senate.
“I don’t know what’s achieved by that. Collectively, those men were both elected straight to the Senate and they never served in the House. Wolf has probably spent five minutes with Bob DeLeo, so I don’t know how you form an opinion of someone’s work ethic or what motivates them by that,” Peake said.
Referencing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech in Philadelphia last week during which Clinton said she “sweats the details” of policy, Peake said the House plays a similar role on Beacon Hill.
“We’re the ones who take care of the detail to make sure there aren’t unintended consequences and build consensus around issues,” she said.
Peake specifically referenced the work done by the House to bring the business community on board with gender pay equity legislation, and her own efforts with Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli last session to make sure an unemployment insurance reform bill approved by the Senate didn’t deny small business owners the right to collect unemployment insurance benefits.
Mariano, who sat on the conference committee that produced the compromise to regulate ride-hailing companies, said another issue that forced negotiations down to the wire on Sunday and left some egos bruised was the penchant for the Senate to pad bills with amendments after they are released from committee.
“They had 49 amendments to my nine so it’s hard to trade, it’s hard to negotiate when you have such a huge discrepancy,” Mariano said. “The Senate has a habit of giving anyone any amendment they want. That isn’t how it works in the House. You have to defend your amendment and negotiate it up the line,” Mariano said.
Rosenberg, since becoming president in January 2015, has practiced what he describes as “shared leadership” to empower individual members rather than run the Senate top-down from the president’s office. “I don’t know how shared leadership works. I don’t understand how it works. It’s a bit of a mystery to me. They claim it’s more transparent, but they seem to caucus an awful lot,” Mariano said.
The House leaders, some of whom were contacted by the News Service and others who reached out proactively, also took issue with DeLeo getting painted as someone in the pockets of business groups, such as Associated Industries of Massachusetts.
“Speaker DeLeo’s style has been inclusive and cautious. It’s not a frivolous approach at all and it’s not weighted to any one stakeholder,” Judiciary Committee Chairman John Fernandes said. “By definition, that kind of an approach is usually going to end up with a pragmatic result that may feel more moderate than people on either of the extremes want it to be, but it’s typically the right result.”
Fernandes said he found Downing and Wolf’s comments to be “insulting to the speaker and to all of us on the House side suggesting we don’t take our work as seriously.”
Peake said the House should be proud of its relationship with the business community in Boston and beyond.
“I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m cozy with my business community. I go to chamber of commerce events. I support local businesses. I buy locally. Until we closed shop this year, I was a small business owner with a bed and breakfast. To paint all business with a broad brush of being somehow the evil empire is unfair and a gross mischaracterization. Business gives people jobs,” she said.
And Rep. Claire Cronin, of Easton, described House members as more grounded in their communities than senators who represent larger districts and have been more inclined to try to use legislation to tackle broader societal issues.
“The House is driven by constituent interests rather than political ideology,” Cronin said. “Because we have smaller districts we are closer to our constituency and we base our work on the need of our constituents, small businesses and rather pragmatic needs of our constituents and areas rather than theoretical ideas.”
The House and Senate, each controlled by overwhelming Democrat majorities, may be divided ideologically and over process, but Fernandes said individual relationships are not all bad.
“I actually think that despite some of the public rhetoric that I find odd, that we’ve had a pretty good session. I know I’ve had a good working relationship with my co-chair, Will Brownsberger. I’m proud of the work we did together and the work we did separately,” he said.
Fernandes said he has at least six bills that went through Judiciary Committee, including two that passed the Senate concerning felony larceny thresholds and juvenile records expungement, that he hopes to advance during informal sessions over the next five months.
Echoing the unresolved House-Senate feud over rules governing the flow of bills, Rosenberg on Wednesday urged Gov. Charlie Baker to file at least half of his proposals in the Senate next session. “Right now, all of them get filed in the House and they all get stuck in the joint committee and when they get out they’re still in the House,” the Amherst Democrat said on Boston Herald radio.
Even that, however, would not change the fact that all bills get referred to joint committees controlled by a majority of House members. Baker, for instance, filed his energy proposal this session with the Senate, which still waited for the House to act this past spring.
“No one moves their position until the end. Nobody changes their position until they have to because we all think we’re right and have the right ideas. What drives compromise is the timeline,” Mariano said in defense of the late-session crush of activity.
“It’s a foreshadowing of another rules battle, I think,” he added.
In a series of Tweets Wednesday, Rosenberg said major bills that were rushed to Baker’s desk Sunday night without time for lawmakers to review them “could have been negotiated earlier, one at a time.”
“We ended up with good bills. I’m not saying they’re not good bills,” Rosenberg said on Boston Herald Radio. “They could have been even better if there was more time to negotiate and more time to talk through some of the policy differences.”
Some lawmakers are hoping that the public airing of frustrations calms down after the adrenaline of the end of the session wears off.
“I hope we can all go home and take a big nap over the summer and hit refresh,” Peake said.