Keverian has House gavel now -- and a handful of promises to keep

New Speaker of the Massachusetts House George Keverian is not likely to surrender a great deal of the power he accused his predecessor of abusing. But the Everett Democrat does seem determined to bring more equity to the lawmaking process. That should make for more efficiency and less rancor in conducting the people's legislative business.

Democrat George Keverian, the new Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, has no intention of becoming another heavy-handed legislative leader.

But as committed as he may be to giving rank-and-file members of the House more say in the lawmaking process, Mr. Keverian clearly is not about to give away the gavel.

Indeed, it is uncertain how many of his colleagues, even some of the 89 who helped him wrest the rostrum from fellow-Democrat Thomas W. McGee of Lynn, want some of the Keverian-backed changes that would make it harder to block action on controversial legislation. For decades more than a few state representatives have been able to cover up for a lack of legislative skill by blaming the defeat or sidetracking of constituent-favored proposals on the House power structure.

Speaker Keverian is not promising that every measure before the House will come up for a vote on the floor, as desirable as that might be. Regardless of what reforms are made in the way the House does its business, exceptions will continue to be possible through ``suspension of rules,'' providing enough representatives support the move. Such occasions may become a lot more infrequent in the months and years ahead, especially if the Speaker and his lieutenants refrain from becoming involved.

Keverian, who brings to the House rostrum a blend of political wisdom and wit, may not have as easy a time as he would like in redirecting the focus of the House along more constructive lines. His pledge to increase the participation of all members in the lawmaking process sounds great. Now it is up to the Everett Democrat to deliver -- and that is bound to tax his leadership ability. Keverian's continuing challenge, at least for the first year, may be to convince critics of the way the House was run by McKee for 91/2 years that things will be not only different, but better, with individual representatives having more clout.

After all, the new Speaker is somewhat of a ``born-again'' rules reformer, having been closely identified with resistance to various change proposals prior to his reach for the speakership. Until October 1983, when deprived by Speaker McGee of the post of House Democratic floor leader, Keverian was very much a McGee loyalist.

To what degree the new Speaker enjoys the unflinching allegiance of members of his own leadership team, including various House committee chairpersons, is uncertain.

One thing the veteran Everett Democrat brings to the speakership is an apparent freedom from ties with special interests. Obviously, those pushing or opposing various proposals in behalf of clients now have little choice but to try to warm up as best they can to the new Speaker and members of his team. But some Keverian-initiated rules changes could make it harder for lobbyists to influence the legislative process.

The new Speaker's long-term effectiveness may well hinge on how well he is able to unify the 125 Democrats in the 160-member House. Some of those who voted to retain McGee, having done that, now can almost certainly be counted on to back his successor in his efforts to give the chamber a new, perhaps more positive, image. Not among those, however, will be McGee loyalists who have lost committee chairmanships. Some might even, on occasion, find it politically convenient to join forces with the House Republican opposition.

And what will be the outmanned opposition party's stance toward the new Speaker? Minority floor Leader William G. Robinson (R) of Melrose and Rep. Andrew S. Natsios (R) of Holliston, the state GOP chairman, were frequent sharp critics of the way McGee ran the House. But despite previous complaints about matters being brought up without advance notice and pushed through with little or no debate, they were not heard Dec. 29 when Speaker McGee sprang on the few representatives present a series of rules changes. The speedy voice-vote passage of these measures was little more than a hollow gesture designed to upstage the proposed changes Keverian had promised if elected as speaker.

Try as hard as they have since to justify their action in going along with the McGee forces and thus becoming at least indirectly drawn into the leadership battle, the House Republican leaders may have considerably damaged their credibility.

With only 34 seats in the House, the Republicans could stand to gain the most from various Keverian-initiated operational changes and promises of more even-handed leadership. The more equity Speaker Keverian brings to the legislative process, the less members of the opposition party, as well as critics within House Democratic ranks, can complain. Instead of wringing their hands in frustration and loudly protesting how things are being done, these lawmakers can devote their persuasive oratory to proposing and pushing improvements in key legislation. That makes a lot more sense than hours of partisan bickering over whether enough time is being allowed for debate or enough advance notice was given.

The 1984 lawmaking session could have been a lot more productive. Partly responsible for the scarcity of major measures approved was the tug-of-war between McGee and Keverian. With that issue now out of the way, the new Speaker and his team should, within the next few weeks, be able to get the House in order and begin to come to grips with important pending measures.

Rarely has a new speaker come to the rostrum better prepared both in gavel experience and knowledge of the intricacies of the legislative machinery. Over the years Keverian has earned a reputation for being a hard worker who seems to excel in tough and politically sensitive assignments. Three times he almost single-handedly redistricted state political districts -- legislative in 1973 and 1977, and congressional in 1981 -- with a minimum of controversy.

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