Absent legislators are a growing problem in Massachusetts

IF Massachusetts government ever again becomes financially strapped, it might want to consider going into the chair-rental business. There are plenty of chairs -- many now rarely used -- under the golden dome, especially in the House and Senate chambers.

While none of the 200 lawmaking seats are technically vacant, some of them are so seldom used that they could easily pass for new.

For reasons known best to individual senators and representatives, few seem to find the time to pay close attention to what is going on in their lawmaking chambers.

Frequently, measures of major import to the commonwealth glide through these chambers with nary a whisper of debate. And often when such verbal action does take place, it is before a sea of empty seats, with many of those on hand either roaming about or chatting with colleagues.

But, alas, when a roll call is ordered, the missing lawmakers rush in, vote, and then hurry off again, presumably to more important pursuits.

Such was the case on Sept. 24 during the lengthy Senate debate that preceded passage of legislation to wipe out the income-tax surcharge and institute a graduated system of personal-income tax deductions.

Although this situation is not new, absenteeism has increased markedly in recent years, especially since lawmakers provided themselves with private offices space outside the House and Senate.

Clearly, many senators and representatives find it more convenient to stay in their offices and, in the case of the House members at least, listen to the proceedings broadcast from their chamber, or perhaps watch it on television.

Even that arrangement, however, is less than ideal and is hardly fair to those colleagues who stay in the chamber and are frequently kept waiting while absentees drift in to vote.

With most members on hand during every sitting, things could move more expeditiously, since it would not be necessary to interrupt debate and wait for missing legislators to answer the call when the presence of a quorum is doubted.

``What's my vote?'' has become an all-too-familiar question. Late-arriving legislators sometimes haven't the foggiest idea of what the roll call is about.

It is often necessary for a senator or representative to rely on a party floor leader or some trusted colleague.

Well-attended House and Senate sittings would certainly look better and perhaps produce better laws, since those who currently rely on others to tell them what to do would be able to decide for themselves. That is especially important since neither party nor the majority or minority leadership has a corner on all the good ideas.

Certainly a lot more votes should be based on a proposal's merit rather than on whether it is supported or opposed by either the legislative power structure or others in positions of influence.

Although their approach and priorities may be different, Democratic and Republican lawmakers could hardly want less than the best for the Bay State.

But the habit of spending little time in the legislative chamber, except to make one's lawmaking record look good or when there is a roll call to answer is certainly not a matter of partisan politics. And it may contribute to a less than well-informed vote.

If attendance does not improve greatly in the coming months, it might be half-seriously suggested that the powers that be move the now 160-member House back into the 40-seat Senate chamber.

The latter lawmaking branch then could relocate into one of the legislative hearing rooms, which would have plenty of chairs, around a much smaller horse-shoe desk, for those senators interested in having more than a ``rubber stamp'' part in the supposedly deliberative proceedings.

The current large House chamber with its very comfortable leather swivel chairs might then be rented out for special functions or even leased as a movie theater.

Obviously such possible changes are offered in jest. But a sound move, in the interest of strengthening the legislature, might be tougher rules requiring a senator or representative to answer a roll call within two minutes, from the second it is ordered, or be automatically recorded as ``missing'' on that vote.

In that way lawmakers' constituents would know how well their elected legislators are tending the legislative store.

Those senators and representatives who like the pay and the prestige of their office but have little time to listen to or participate in debate of key measures might do both themselves and the commonwealth a favor by leaving the legislature at term's end.

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