With ‘process-lite,’ is a full-time Legislature even necessary?

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The Legislature’s new “process-lite” operating style reached new heights with  the recent health care cost containment bill. This legislation — which  restructures 18 percent of the state’s economy, impacts every citizen, promises  over $100 billion (yep, billion) in savings, and changes the rules in an  industry that is one of the commonwealth’s largest employers — passed the House  almost unanimously (a mere 7 “no” votes).

What’s even more amazing is that it passed without being debated. Sure,  legislators debated a number of amendments, but the language in the underlying  188-page, 51,731-word bill that came out of committee was oddly unworthy of  discussion.

The good news is that there are things we can do about it.

In the old days, legislators engaged in hearings, public debates, and roll  call votes. While time-consuming and sometimes even tedious, these public  processes provide an opportunity for transparent and open consideration and  dialogue. In contrast, the new approach cedes power to legislative leadership  and committee chairs who engineer consolidated amendments, voice votes, closed  conference committees and breakneck end-of-session legislating.

In the last six weeks (for many of these bills, more like the last six days)  of the current legislative session, there are likely to be bills passed to  restructure health care payments, reform sentencing, bail out the MBTA, impose  new government performance standards, provide municipalities with transportation  funds, reduce energy costs and enact a $30 billion plus budget for the upcoming  year.

That’s a pretty full calendar, and the less that gets done now, the more  compressed the calendar becomes as we approach the end of the session on July  31. A hyper-compressed calendar means important bills are unlikely to receive  more than cursory consideration from the average legislator before casting a  vote. It’s a simple matter of logistics — turning around hundreds of pages of  legislation in a tight time frame makes it almost physically impossible for  legislators to even read the bills.

There are some benefits to process-lite. It cuts out endless special  interest-packed hearings and minimizes roll call votes. It also frequently  focuses drafting power on the legislators with the most expertise on the topic  at hand.

But those are precisely the reasons why the rest of the Legislature should  demand change.

If we have gotten to the point where we don’t see value in the hearing  process, floor debate is strictly limited, roll call votes are rare and much of  a legislative session’s work can be done in just a few weeks, why we do we need  so many legislators? And why is it a full-time job?

A few common-sense reforms are needed to address the concentration of power  in the hands of leadership.

— First, stop bottling bills up in committee, never to be heard from again,  and have committees hold more hearings to get new ideas on the table.

— Next, open up floor debates and take roll call votes. If we can’t have a  robust public debate about a health care payment reform bill that will have  far-reaching effects on our economy and well-being, what’s worth debating?

— Finally, publicly post all bills in a timely manner and allow sufficient  time for analysis. Let’s stop hustling complex legislation through the process  at breakneck speed during the last days of the session.

The Legislature may publicly defend its “full-time” status, but its actions  suggest that it considers traditional processes — and indeed, most elected  members — to be superfluous. If it isn’t willing to submit to the public process  of lawmaking, it shouldn’t be surprised when the public declines to maintain a  full-time Legislature.

Also seen in Herald News and Marlborough Enterprise