Republicans on Beacon Hill Should Take Roll-Call-Votes Pledge, and Challenge Democrats To Do the Same

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If things are going to get better in Massachusetts, it starts with bad ideas having a name on them. Or, when it comes to Beacon Hill, names.

The recent push by several left-of-center incoming state legislators for roll call votes in the Massachusetts Legislature is a breath of fresh air, and ought to be supported by everyone interested in reform.

That includes Republicans on Beacon Hill.

Roll call votes put all legislators in the Senate or House of Representatives on record as having voted yea or nay (or present, meaning neither one) on a measure that the body votes on. It could be a bill, or a proposed amendment to a bill.

Many legislators prefer voice votes, where nobody’s name is attached to it. It’s a lot easier to make your case to constituents when you don’t have to deal with firm evidence of your actions.

Four incoming Democrats – one state senator-elect and three state representatives-elect – took the so-called Transparency Pledge during their campaigns. It says:  “I pledge to stand for roll calls and to advocate for greater transparency and accountability within the Massachusetts Legislature. Elected leaders should be on record, supporting or opposing proposals on Beacon Hill.”

The principle should apply not just to votes on the floor, by the way. Committee votes on amendments and bills should be by roll call and posted online.

Unlike many needed reforms in this state, this one is simple and quickly doable. During the new legislative session that begins next month, it will take just six of the 40 senators to require a roll call vote. If all six Republicans ally with incoming state Senator-elect Becca Rausch (D-Needham) (who was the first candidate to take the pledge, in August), it will happen every time there are enough members on the floor.

In addition, there ought to be at least a handful of sympathetic Senate Democrats willing to join, and perhaps a few unsympathetic ones who might join out of shame.

The House should in theory be even easier. It takes just 16 members of the 160, and the Republicans will have 32. Add to that the three incoming Democrats who have taken the Transparency Pledge, and there ought to be a Transparency Pledge Caucus more than twice as numerous as what’s needed.

Ah, but it’s not as simple as that, is it?

Candidates for the Legislature who start off as reformers often acclimate to the prevailing system surprisingly quickly, as committee chairmanships and salary add-ons and favors are dangled before them. Before you know it, Mr. Smith turns into Boss Hogg.

Democrats are most susceptible to these overtures, since their party controls everything. But Republicans aren’t immune. There’s at least a little something in it for everybody who goes along.

And that’s the problem that has to be solved. A public pledge is a good way to do it. It draws a line in the sand on a matter of principle. “I’m sorry, Mr. Speaker, I’d like to be with you. You know how much I respect and admire you. But I’m committed to this pledge thing. I have to ask for a roll call vote.”

Republicans in the Legislature sometimes come together and vote lockstep against a bad measure pushed by the Democratic leadership to send a message. They ought to do that with the Transparency Pledge. Every Republican should take the Transparency Pledge and publicize it. Not only would it send a message about what the GOP stands for, but it also might attract some Democrats to join in.

Several advocacy groups on the right and left agree on this matter. (Among them are Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, Massachusetts Family Institute, and Renew Massachusetts Coalition on the right; and Progressive Massachusetts on the left.)

Many advocacy groups don’t endorse specific candidates, because it would endanger their ability to solicit tax-deductible donations. But for the ones that do, here’s a challenge:  Demand that candidates seeking your endorsement take the Transparency Pledge. It’s in your interests, after all, right? You want to be able to check on the candidates you supported.

Roll call votes won’t fix what ails us. But they are a necessary first step.

Once we know where everyone stands, left and right can go back to fighting over who’s just.

For those who believe, as we do, that religious freedom, free speech, the right to life, parents’ rights, less government, lower taxes, less regulation are not only correct principles but also attractive, we can make our case to the public and try to persuade them to support candidates who agree.

For those who believe in other things, they too can make their case.

But it starts with knowing what our elected representatives are doing.