Too many sideshows disrupt Massachusetts House sessions

MASSACHUSETTS lawmakers are rarely shy when it comes to providing for themselves. The annual legislative budget has soared, from $17.8 million to $45.6 million, over the past decade. But nary a penny has been spent on what some say lawmakers seem to need - a quick course in good manners.

While many legislators require no such instruction, common courtesy is all too often in short supply, particularly in the House. All too frequently the side chatter reaches such a level that it is impossible to follow what is being said by those at the microphone, who theoretically have the floor.

House Speaker George Keverian (D) of Everett, to his credit, has tried to keep order. But within minutes the near din often returns.

At times during the May 18 debate of the $11,000 legislative pay raise, it is questionable how many were listening to the pros and cons of proposed amendments.

Tougher legislative rules might keep the few inconsiderate members from trampling on the rights of those who have the House floor.

Those in the House gallery also have a right to listen to what those at the podium are saying, without having to tune out a symphony of prattle.

On those occasions when it is necessary for lawmakers to confer briefly with colleagues, they could leave the chamber temporarily. Many lawmakers do just that. Still that's hardly ideal, since members are then absent from the lawmaking chamber where the action is.

Even if fully aware of what is going on while carrying on a private chat in the chamber, such apparent disconcern for those at the podium creates the wrong impression and detracts from the legislature's image.

While this problem is hardly new or unique to Beacon Hill, the situation in the House is something in which no Bay Stater can take pride.

The daily televising of House sittings seems to be having little effect on the noise level. That's because the cameras focus only on the rostrum where those taking part in the debate stand. House leaders have seen to it that other areas of the chamber are not shown.

In this way those watching WGBX-TV (Channel 44) don't see the areas of empty chairs or those legislators who are chattering away at their desks instead of listening to the debate.

If individual representatives faced the possibility of being embarrassed by having what they do or say be on television, some might mend their ways.

And anything less than that is not telling the House story as it is, which supposedly is why the House spends more than $500,000 a year to televise its proceedings.

With renewal of the TV contract coming up, the time is ripe for House leaders to come to grips with the question of increasing the camera and microphone positions in the House.

Lawmakers who are doing their jobs properly have nothing to fear from TV coverage. Legislators who cannot sit quietly and listen to both sides of a debate might be happier elsewhere.

While it might seem unrealistic to expect lawmakers to refrain from chatting when somebody else has the legislative floor, that is what good manners demands.

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