Bay State needs a speaker who will bring harmony to a House divided
Not all Massachusetts political contests are headed for next fall's party primary or election ballot. Overshadowed by the scramble for the US Senate seat being vacated by Paul E. Tsongas (D) and the competition for congressional and state legislative chairs is the ongoing tussle for speaker of the commonwealth's House of Representatives.
Thomas W. McGee (D) of Lynn has held the lawmaking reins for the past 8 1/2 years -- longer than anyone in Massachusetts history -- and is determined to retain his post in 1985 and 1986.
It is increasingly questionable, however, whether the veteran North Shore legislator can fend off his challenger, Rep. George Keverian (D) of Everett, who is hardly marking time wating for next January's House showdown vote.
Since November, when Mr. McGee fired the Everett lawmaker from the House leadership team, Mr. Keverian has been maneuvering to line up support -- among uncommitted colleagues as well as the Democratic candidates for state representative.
Keverian's success can't be measured until after next November's election, when the makeup of the House for the next two years is decided. But in the meantime, his efforts are bound to keep political heat on the speaker.
A major thrust of Keverian's campaign has been the need for rules reform, including more say for rank-and-file lawmakers.
Particularly encouraging from Keverian's viewpoint was the Democratic nomination of Joseph B. McIntyre for a vacant House from Ne Bedford. The fromer Bristol County assistant district attorney, who was the only one among the six contenders to endorse legislative rules reform, moves on to the Feb. 28 special election without ballot opposition the the 12th Bristol District.
Not to be outdone by his former top lieutenant, Speaker McGee in recent weeks has indicated a willingness to go along with certain rules shifts, including some that may lessen his authority slightly.
In the wake of the Keverian ouster and his jump onto the rules-reofrm band-wagon, the House has adopted some modest reforms. These include tarification by the full membership of the majority party for all legislative committee assignments by the speaker. Similarly, lawmakers from the minority party must now approve their floor leader's choices for seats allotted to their flock.
Such confirmation votes, however, will not be by secret ballot. Therefore, individual legislators may be intimidated into rubber-stamping various appointments. Dissidents would be less likely to buck the speaker's will than they would if their identities were concealed.
An even greater shortcoming of the operational revision is the House's failure to provide for a policy steering committee, as in Congres, to make nominations for committee assignments.
Both these potential reforms were key features of the initiative petition pushed last fall by a coalition of civic groups. The measure, supported by the signatures of 120,000 citizens across the commonwealth and aimed toward next November's statewide ballot, was thwarted when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicail Court ruled two months ago that legislative rules cannot be changed except by lawmakers themselves.
Despite their disappointment, backers of the attempted reform -- including Citizens for Participation in Political Action, Common Cause, and Citizens for Limited Taxation -- have no intention of abandoning their efforts to improve the legislature.
Being considered are several nonbinding ballot questions on the rules-change issue on November ballots in legislative districts around the state. If nothing else, this would keeop the public's attention focused on the concept of giving individual members of the state Senate and House more say in the lawmaking process. Legislative candidates -- incumbents, challengers, and those running for vacant seats -- should be asked to take positions on the issue.
Of some impact on the speakership battle could be the congressional candidacies of several state representatives who have been legislative rules-reform activists. Many are out-right Keverian loyalists. But even if they leave Boston for Washington, Reps Michael Barrett (D) of Reading. Nicholas Paleologos (D) of Woburn, and other collegues many not cost Keverian votes since their replacements also may support his reach for the gavel.
To hold onto the speakership, McGee may have little choice but to involve himself actively in a number of campaigns for the Democratic nomination for House seats, especially where incumbents are not seeking reelection. In the process, he could find himself hard pressed to go a lot further than he has toward significant rules changes.
One of these changes might be to open up legislative accounts to the state auditor and the state inspector general, both of whom currently lack such jurisdiction. Last month McGee endorsed an arrangement by shich a private auditor, hired by the legislature, would review the ledgers.
Such an arrangement, however, seems unnecessary: The commonwealth already has officials who should handle that responsibility, and at less cost to the taxpayers than if the work went to outsiders.
Besdies lessening the speaker's power to appoint and remove committee members , why not end his control over how legislative quarters are used and the deployment of personnel? Currently, lawmakers close to the leadership get the choice office space and the most staffing. A better system would leave such decisions to an impartial panel, elected through secret ballot by th full House membership.
An effective speaker could get the job done without relying on an arsenal of favors and punishments. Those who feel they need such weapons would do the commonwealth a favor by leaving the gavel to abler hands.