Mass. policymaking, national politics on July 2016 collision course

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STATE HOUSE — Democrats and Republicans next July with gather in Philadelphia and Cleveland to select their nominees for president. But will Bay State lawmakers be among them?

The national political conventions are presenting more than just a philosophical and political conundrum for Massachusetts legislators. They’re creating a logistical issue as well.

Both conventions, scheduled earlier than they were four years ago and back-to-back in the final two weeks of July, happen to coincide with the end of the formal portion of the two-year legislative session in Massachusetts, typically a harried period that’s do-or-die time for scores of bills filed and debated over the previous 19 months.

By the time the Democratic nominee for president steps on stage at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia to accept his or her party’s nomination on July 28, the Legislature back in Boston will have just three days remaining until the formal lawmaking period is slated to close – a Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The timing leaves House and Senate leaders with only undesirable options to manage the calendar: Try to finish two weeks early; hold their final sessions over the weekend after lawmakers return home; carry on as planned, forcing Democratic lawmakers who might want to attend the convention to choose between missing votes or missing the convention; or come to an agreement to suspend their own rules and meet into August, something they have been loath to do.

“I have a 100 percent voting record and I don’t want to lose it,” said Rep. Jay Barrows, a Mansfield Republican.

Barrows has been to every Republican National Convention since 1996 when former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole won the GOP nomination. Should he be successful again in getting elected as a delegate to the convention in 2016, Barrows said he would hope the speaker would find a way to accommodate members of both parties to allow them to travel without missing business at home.

“I think it’s certainly an important time for both parties to participate and make sure Massachusetts is represented,” Barrows said. “You get to network and meet a lot of people from other parts of the country that can offer ideas that maybe we bring back here.”

Made clear in conversations with multiple lawmakers and senior staff in both the House and Senate, the scheduling conflict has barely made a ripple so far in a building where rank-and-file lawmakers often don’t know what’s on their branch’s agenda a week before a vote, let alone nine months from now.

Lawmakers approached about the topic, including some who plan to attend the convention, were almost uniformly unaware of the conflict, or said they hadn’t thought through the options for how to handle it.

Rep. David Nangle, the House chair of Steering, Policy and Scheduling, said he would anticipate both branches working together to “come up with some resolution.” Nangle was not aware of the conflict before being asked, but said, “It’s a long way away, but it’s obviously something we’ll need to address well in advance.”

While members of the U.S. House and Senate are automatically seated as delegates to the conventions, state lawmakers, in most cases, must be elected to represent their parties. Many, but not all, do run to become delegates, and dozens of Bay State lawmakers in the past, including party leaders like House Speaker Robert DeLeo, have traveled to the conventions to take part in the festivities.

The 2012 conventions took place in August and September, after formal sessions had already ended. By rules jointly agreed to by both the House and Senate, formal sessions end on July 31 to give lawmakers space to run their campaigns avoid election-year politics from creeping into policy-making decision so close to ballots being cast.

Lawmakers, since adopting the rule in 1995, historically have been reluctant to consider suspending that rule to take up important matters before the Legislature. The Legislature has never before suspended the rule to extend a session into August, and only once, in 2001, did lawmakers suspend the same rule to allow them to meet in December of the off-election year to consider a redistricting plan.

While the GOP convention, scheduled for July 18 through July 21, presents less of a problem than the Democratic National Convention, it would be unlikely that Democratic leaders would arrange the schedule to accommodate minority party members and not their own.

An aide to Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said the Amherst Democrat has been made generally aware of the concern, but does not have an opinion yet on how to resolve it. Rosenberg plans to talk with leaders of both parties, including DeLeo, and wants to get a sense from senators of how many plan to attend the conventions.

Sen. Thomas McGee, the chair of the state Democratic Party, will lead the Massachusetts delegation to Philadelphia and is a superdelegate to the convention by virtue of his position within the party.

McGee told the News Service he has not yet spoken to Rosenberg about the schedule or considered what he might recommend as the best option, but acknowledged the value of allowing lawmakers to attend.

“Typically, the leaders of the party are always involved with national politics and attend,” McGee said. “It’s a good question but I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

McGee did not attend the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, but said he has attended five national conventions in the past, including three during his time serving in the Legislature. The last time he attended was the 2004 DNC in Boston.

“It’s important for our state who the president is going to be, and how that impacts our state and country,” McGee said.

— Written by Matt Murphy

Copyright State House News Service