As of the first week of March 2015, several states are well into their legislative session.  Committee hearings are underway, and significant legislation has passed both branches of government.  In Massachusetts, however, a fight has been brewing between the House and Senate over internal rules and how expeditiously one branch will consider the merits of the other branch’s proposed bills.  As a result, the 6,500+ pieces of legislation filed by the January 2015 deadline have yet to make any movement and will likely remain in limbo until the internal rules get sorted out.

The Massachusetts Senate, led by newly elected Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, unanimously supported an amendment to the legislature’s joint rules that would give more power to the Senate than it currently enjoys when joint committees determine which bills will advance and which will stay in committee.  The Senate’s position is that its members on the joint committees should be the final arbiters of the fate of their bills.  The current rules, however, require a majority of all committee members (House and Senate members) to agree to pass or hold on to legislation.  Most joint committees have 17 members—6 members from the Senate and 11 members from the House.  Therefore, while it is true that the House has the votes on the committee to advance a proposal, no bill can reach the governor’s desk without passing both the House and Senate.

The Senate’s proposal to give greater flexibility to move Senate bills out of joint committees has not been immediately embraced by the House leadership.  Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo called the Senate initiative a “non-starter” because of years of precedence, appropriateness in the constitutional balance of power and other procedural safeguards in the rules that determine the final outcome of legislation.  The Senate is not willing to cede its position at this point, and as a result the Senate has suggested an alternate “nuclear option,” which would establish a parallel committee system composed of senators only.  While this option would expedite the consideration of Senate bills in the Senate, it is uncertain how the House would process such bills.

Practically speaking, the internal debate over the joint rules has had the effect of delaying action on all but the most routine matters.  The legislature will soon need to consider the merits of the fiscal year 2016 budget, as well as the thousands of other bills that deserve a public hearing and perhaps a debate before the full legislature.  But without formal rules in place guiding the policymaking process, there can be no serious consideration of the legislature’s and governor’s agenda on Beacon Hill.