Room 348: Where Liberty Goes to Die

“So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause” – Padme Amidala Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

While the Republic of Massachusetts has certainly not turned into an empire, the sentiments expressed by Padme Amidala as Palpatine assumes the powers of Emperor certainly has parallels.  The 160 elected members of the House of Representatives have allowed their proceedings to become like those of a third world republic, not those John Adams would recognize.  For all intents and purposes Bob DeLeo is a defacto dictator of the House.  

I speak of course of the budget process.  State House News reported that James Miceli (D-Wilmington) said that this years budget process was the most efficient he’s ever seen.  Unfortunately the price of efficiency is transparency and democracy.  

On Tuesday April 24, 2012, for the first time, I spent an evening in the House Chambers to watch the “debate” of the budget.  What I saw was not debate.  For long periods of time, members of the house sat around gabbing, looked at their iPads, caught up on Netflix, listened to their iPods, and snacked on soda and candy.  They did not debate, at least not in the open.  

The real debate took place behind closed doors, in a secretive room for Members Only.  State House Room 348, where the real work of the budget is done.  Behind closed doors with no public or press access.  

A couple of Freshmen legislators, on the condition of anonymity described a process similar to an audience with Don Corleone in the Godfather.  The representatives described waiting in a line to speak with Ways and Means chairman Dempsey.  The proscribed protocol is to thank Dempsey for his tireless work on the budget and to humbly ask him to support your gazebo, state park, social program, etc…  This goes on for hours.

Once Dempsey and his team have deemed your amendment worthy it goes into what is called a consolidated amendment. After hours of inaction in the House, the interim speaker has the first two sentences of the amendment read, gavels, calls for a vote, and gavels it passed.  No roll call, rarely any debate except to pat each other on the back.

This is how millions of your dollars are spent.  Outside the eyes of the public and press.  Where secret deals are crafted.  It is an abomination, and the people of the Commonwealth should be ashamed of it.

Of course the defenders of the status quo have lept to the defense of the Room 348 procedures.  With Tom Sannicandro (D-Framingham) even writing a blog post to “explain” the room 348 process.

6. As part of that debate, before each subject matter goes to the floor, there is an informal meeting in Room 348, where the any member of the House, of either party, can advocate for a particular budget amendment.

7. After the 348 Meeting, the House Ways and Means Committee proposes to the floor a “Consolidated Amendment” that incorporates all the amendments on that particular subject matter. If any member does not agree with the consolidate amendment, they can “pull the amendment” from the consolidated amendment and debate that particular amendment on the House Floor. That pulled amendment would then get a vote on the House Floor.

8. After all the amendments are debated, the House then votes to approve the new “Consolidated Amendment.”

He helpfully bolded that any member can take any amendment out of the consolidated amendment.  A procedure which rarely happens.  That procedure however is how the Republican Leadership could have changed the game.  They chose not to.

Earlier this month Minority Leader Brad Jones (R-North Reading) told Commonwealth Magazine the following:

Jones, the Republican leader, says while legislative leaders have a good deal of power, they only have that power because the rank-and-file members give it to them. “If you-pardon my language-want to be part of the bitch-and-moan club, you’ve got to realize that some of what happens isn’t simply because somebody has power and you have no power yourselves,” he says.  

This is exactly true.  Unfortunately the Minority Leadership, nor rank and file members, used their power to change the process.  If in fact any member could take any amendment out of the consolidated, then any member could take every line item out of the consolidated and debate each.  With this power, the member could have said they’d stop the process as soon as Room 348 was opened to the public and the press.  No member chose to.

Hopefully during the next budget season, the Minority Leadership will use the power they have to affect change.  Until then the process is an affront to democracy and liberty.  

Don’t forget, at the end of the budget session, there’s always applause, some may say thunderous.  

About Rob "EaBo Clipper" Eno