Beacon Hill lawmakers should not twist rules to fit their fancy

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LEGISLATIVE reform in Massachusetts may be like an electric switch that can be turned on or off to suit lawmakers' fancy. Those who think otherwise were not paying attention at a recent state Senate session, when a much-heralded 1985 rules change was relaxed for largely political reasons. It requires that all legislation must be in print not less than 24 hours before consideration.

The bill in question, which is strongly opposed by the Massachusetts Medical Association, would pave the way for certain licensed nurses to prescribe medication, under some circumstances. It merited the consideration of every senator. There was nothing to suggest that a delay in taking up the legislation would create a crisis.

While legislators should be free to vote their conscience, that need not shut the door on what constituents might have to say. And without copies of a bill, how can the public know what is proposed, especially on measures that some day could affect them?

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As it worked out, cooler heads prevailed, and consideration of the bill was postponed. But the fact remains that the Senate, by slightly more than the required 2 to 1, stood ready to act on the legislation, before it was in print and thus available for public scrutiny.

Only 12 senators -- 6 Republicans and 6 Democrats -- voted against suspending the rule.

Ironically, most of the staunchest supporters of upgrading proceedings to serve the public better apparently saw nothing wrong with hustling the bill through, before printed copies were in hand. These included Sens. Carol C. Amick (D) of Bedford, Jack H. Backman (D) of Brookline, George Bachrach (D) of Watertown, John P. Houston (D) of Worcester, Richard A. Kraus (D) of Arlington, and Patricia McGovern (D) of Lawrence.

The ``yes'' vote could prove a political embarrassment for Senator Bachrach, in particular, since he is seeking the congressional seat being vacated by US House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. His reputation for ``independence'' and opposition to legislative ``business as usual'' had been viewed as one of his major assets.

While the Watertown liberal may be no less a reformer, his willingness to waive an important rule in the interest of expediency, raises questions about his commitment to reforming the legislative process.

The clumsily orchestrated move to suspend the rule appeared to be little more than a means of frustrating attempts by Sen. David H. Locke (R) of Wellesley, a sharp critic of the legislation being pushed by Sen. Edward L. Burke (D) of Framingham.

Having proved his point and gained the rule suspension, Senator Burke may have had little choice but to go along with the postponement, thus helping more than a few colleagues save a bit of political face. If action on that piece of legislation was urgent, there is little doubt its sponsor would not have agreed to the postponement.

Whether many of those who voted for or against suspending the rule knew what the pending legislation was all about is uncertain. But what is sure is that less than a dozen senators were in the chamber during the brief debate on whether to act on a proposal not yet in print for public review.

Health care, the issue at hand, is not a partisan matter, and it shouldn't be. The decision whether this legislation makes it into the statute books clearly should not be based on partisan considerations.

Requiring bills to be in print before they come up in either the Senate or House would not seem to be much of an obstacle. Those lawmakers who think otherwise might do the cause of good government a favor and move on to other pursuits, where expertise in rubber-stamping might be more tolerable.

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