Keverian-McGee fight for House speaker's job a catalyst for reform

Nobody in Massachusetts has worked harder to keep his job than House Speaker Thomas W. McGee. But it may all be for naught. The Lynn Democrat, who in the interest of political self-preservation accepted a few modest rules changes last January that give fellow lawmakers a bit more say in legislative proceedings, can hardly take comfort from the Sept. 18 primary. While home-district Democrats have all but assured Mr. McGee of a 12 th two-year term as state representative, his hold on the House speakership, with its awesome power and $65,000 annual salary, is increasingly in jeopardy.

State Rep. George Keverian (D) of Everett, his former righthand man in leadership, appears to have made considerable progress in his efforts to grab the gavel come next January. By his own tally of pledges, however, the McGee challenger still is short of the 81 votes he will need when the 160 members of the 1985 House choose their leader some three months hence.

Clearly, Mr. Keverian's goal is to have everything wrapped up, with colleague public commitments to his candidacy for speaker in his pocket, long before the Jan. 2 lawmaker gathering. But he is not likely to make his move before the end of the year.

As determined as he is to replace Speaker McGee as head of the House, Keverian would gain little and might even alienate some colleagues whose potential support he will need next year, but who are not likely to become involved in an attempt to topple their current leader in mid-session. No matter how desirable a change in the House leadership may be, it certainly can wait until January and the outset of a new lawmaking year.

The waning weeks of the current legislatuve session were best spent coming to grips with key measures that have been languishing for months. The internal power struggle within House Democratic ranks already has to a considerable extent slowed the lawmaking process on Beacon Hill.

Speaker McGee, in his effort to improve his leadership image and convince dissident colleagues that he should stay at the rostrum, has been running the House with a lighter touch in the current session. But the old political practice of rewarding supporters and punishing those who displease has survived.

To what extent the 63 state representatives on the Keverian bandwagon might insist on a more open and evenhanded leadership is uncertain. Yet there is little doubt many are committed to reforms that would give them more say. Individual political ambitions are also a strong factor. McGee has ruled the rostrum for nine years, and until he retires or is displaced, opportunities are closed off for others to move up through leadership and House committee chairmanships.

The sometimes-feisty Lynn Demnocrat's determination to retain the speakership for at least another two years flies in the face of a long-respected custom under which presiding officers in both state lawmaking chambers stay on for no more than three or four terms.

Regardless of who wins the current power struggle, consideration of a legislative rule or state constitutional amendment to restrict the length of time anyone can serve as leader of the Senate or House might well be in order.

Obviously, McGee has no interest in restricting how long a speaker can serve. Keverian supports the idea but declines to say what the maximum number of years should be. Nor has he pledged to press for a service limit were he to become speaker.

While committed to a ''more open'' legislative process, the would-be speaker stops short of leaving the choice of House committee chairmen to the membership, as suggested by the Coalition for Legislative Reform, an activist group comprising Common Cause, Citizens for Participation in Political Action, and others.

Instead, Keverian supports leaving that decision with the speaker, subject to secret ballot ratification by a caucus of the chamber's majority party.

Provision for approval of future assignments through such membership gatherings is included among the rules changes approved earlier this year. The ratification vote, however, will come in open session, which critics warn could make the process little more than a rubber stamp. Individual lawmakers would think twice before standing up and being counted as opposing the choice of a still very powerful speaker.

Ideally, each legislative committee should be comprised of the best qualified lawmakers available, without regard for personal loyalties. Currently this is not the case. Many assignments, particularly those to chairmanships which carry both extra compensation and sometimes considerable clout, are often given to legislators with questionable leadership talents but with political connections.

This is not to suggest assignments by secret ballot would necessarily always produce the best and strongest legislative panels. Yet, eliminating the possibility of any state representative becoming beholden to his party's House leader just might produce better laws.

Were chairmen popularly elected, rather than handpicked by the speaker, it would be difficult for any speaker to exert the kind of power now wielded by McGee.

Thus far the McGee team has held together - except for William J. Galvin (D) of Boston, who resigned his chairmanship of the government regulations committee; Robert Cerasoli (D) of Quincy, chairman of the ethics committee; and Richard Voke of Chelsea, chairman of the health care committee.

But with the speakership showdown approaching this could change, especially if it appears Keverian is likely to win.

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