Senate Rules Debate

In the debate on Senate rules that occurred today, there were two issues that generated significant discussion — making remote voting permanent and abolishing the Senate President’s eight-year term limit. While both of these changes were controversial, I had no ambivalence about either one: I supported them both.

Remote participation

We introduced remote roll call voting for senators early in the COVID epidemic and, at this point, we have it working very well. Under the COVID rules, senators have three options for casting their vote in a roll call: they can vote in the traditional way from the floor when their name is called by the clerk in the chamber; they can vote through a video call when their name is called by a court officer connected to the call; when the specific vote is known in advance they can submit their votes in writing to the clerk and the presiding officer will announce their votes one-by-one from the rostrum. In all three cases, the observing public can see in real-time what each senator’s vote was and by what method they cast it. Glitches with the video calling software can create occasional delays, but we have learned to minimize these.

Just as the Senate rules we adopted will allow remote voting by senators, the Joint House/Senate rules we adopted will make permanent the ability of citizens to participate remotely in joint legislative hearings by video call. I have always been troubled that citizens from across the state who sought to address a legislative committee often had to wait hours on uncomfortable seats and all too often had to turn around and make a long drive home before getting a chance to register their views. It is vastly more respectful of citizens to use the now robust video calling technology to allow citizens to save hours on the road and wait in the comfort of their homes or offices.

Citizen remote participation was non-controversial, but some opposed remote participation by Senators themselves. For the same basic reasons that I support remote citizen participation, I support remote senator participation. I reach the Senate chamber from my home in under an hour whether I run, bike, take the T, or drive. I almost always vote in person and am frequently presiding from the rostrum. For me, remote voting is usually irrelevant, or in fact an additional challenge in managing the Senate session. However, for senators who travel from farther away, it is a godsend. While each Senate vote is sacred, many of them are non-controversial and are not attended by meaningful debate. Even when measures generate debate, remote calling technology does allow a legislator to both follow and participate in debate from a remote location. There are often much better ways for legislators to use their time to serve the public than commuting long distances.

Convenience and time management aside, there is a deeper reason to support remote participation for both citizens and senators. A remote option makes participation possible for many for whom participation would be impossible otherwise — the parent with young children, any person with an obligation to care physically for another, the person with special health vulnerabilities, the person who is less able physically, any person at a sudden disadvantage of mobility. Since we now have the technology to allow remote participation, I believe that we are absolutely obligated to do so.

Without a doubt, there is much lost when people are not together in the same room — the friendly touch that speaks collegiality, the chance to recognize the off-camera look that speaks frustration or dejection, the unplanned encounter that spurs a needed conversation, the basic feeling of community that comes from sharing a space. But then again a video call allows one to see most participants simultaneously and makes informal messaging and document exchange easier. On balance, having everyone in the same space is preferable for communication, but those benefits are far outweighed by the commute savings and the broader participation afforded by newly available technology.

For all the same reasons, I believe that local governments should offer remote participation in public meetings and I have sponsored legislation to further extend the COVID-originated meeting rules for local governments.

Abolishing term limit for Senate President

I also supported abolishing the term limit for the Senate President. The previous rule was that the Senate President could only serve for eight years. None of the other major offices on Beacon Hill is term-limited: Not the House Speaker, not the Governor, none of the other constitutional officers.

The Senate President represents the Senate in negotiation with the House, the Governor, and ultimately with many major interest and advocacy groups. It weakens the body as a whole and diminishes our ability to advance our shared priorities if our leader’s long-term negotiating authority is subject to doubt. It is unacceptable for the various competing stakeholders to be able to think of the Senate President as a lame duck, as someone whose views they need not respect.

The notion that forced leadership turnover will somehow invigorate the body is based on a common misunderstanding of how legislatures work: Some perceive incorrectly that legislative leaders can routinely impose their will on rank-and-file members. In truth, leadership actions almost always reflect the spoken or unspoken will of the majority of the body; of course, there will always be some who disagree and sometimes many who disagree, but if a legislative leader chronically acts against the majority of the body, she will not survive.

Every vote has a context. Procedural rules like term limits have different consequences at different times. The abolished term limit dated to 1993 and was instituted as a reaction to the famously autocratic style of Senate President Billy Bulger.  However, it has no deeper historic foundation.

My current vote to abolish the term limit on the Senate President reflects my general judgment as to the best rule, but it also reflects my confidence in current Senate President Karen Spilka’s leadership. I recently had the occasion to express my confidence in her leadership: I gave a speech renominating her at the start of the present term. The text of my speech appears below.

Full text of nominating speech
(On the Senate Floor, January 4, 2023)

I rise to nominate Karen Spilka as President of the Massachusetts Senate for the coming term.  We need her continued steady leadership. 

When we campaign for office, we present an agenda for action to the voters –  

  • Education that lifts all our children,  
  • Transportation that works 
  • A net-zero energy future 
  • Justice for all 
  • Housing for all 
  • Health care for all  
  • Transparency and accountability in government 
  • Fiscal responsibility  

. . .  a positive vision for the future.   

Most of us have more or less the same agenda although we use different words or choose a different emphasis.  Yet, almost always, when we take our seats, we face largely unanticipated challenges.  And it’s when the winds suddenly shift that we most need an experienced captain at the helm.   

  • Few ran for office anticipating a global pandemic. 
  • Few ran for office anticipating the strangulation murder of George Floyd. 
  • Few ran for office anticipating the enormous scope of changes the Supreme Court would make in our constitutional law 
  • No one ran for office amidst the grim financial forecasts in 2020 anticipating competition for a historic surfeit of state funds. 

Yet all of these storms have broken over the Senate while Karen Spilka was on the bridge.  Together, we have weathered them under her steady leadership. 

  • We need leadership that has felt the shock of heavy seas on the rudder. 
  • We need leadership that has heard the sighs and groans of our historic vessel in the rolling waves and can sense what they foretell. 
  • We need leadership that is unafraid to steer into the hard issues and rise over them. 
  • We need leadership that can bring the best from every person — every senator, every staff member – as we trim the sails and navigate together. 

Karen Spilka is that seasoned, wise, strong, and collaborative leader.  She was that leader when she took the helm four years ago, as the Senate was reeling from the previous Senate presidency, and she is even more so today. 

We can take pride in her leadership which we have chosen together.  We can take pride in the diverse and capable team that we now comprise together – senators and senate staff. 

Let us move forward together to meet challenges known and unknown with Karen Spilka as our President. 

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

29 replies on “Senate Rules Debate”

  1. Senator Brownsberger, All very well explained and supported from my POV as the world advances in technology and protocol. Rui Coelho

  2. I completely support your efforts to extend remote participation. I hope that this can apply not just to state offices but also to municipalities; many communities have benefited from increased participation on the part of the public because it’s easy to attend a meeting whether it’s scheduled early in the morning or later in the day.

    In addition, I hope that you will sponsor legislation that allows for hybrid town meetings. At present, the law permits in person town meetings or virtual town meetings. It does not permit hybrid town meetings. A live town meeting is likely to have 300 people in an enclosed space over a 3 – 4 hour period on a number of nights. Some may be comfortable with this but others are not. And there are many for whom this is not a great idea including those with a variety of medical conditions including, but not limited to, heart disease, diabetes, cancer survival, strokes and so forth. These are not conditions that preclude an individual from serving in public office; nor should age be a determinant. The technology is there and there are ways to make hybrid meetings manageable and even easy for those who run them.
    Go for it!

  3. The technology of remote participation is only just getting underway. Every decade from now on the advantages of using it will only grow. Twenty years from now that once we debated whether to us it will sound to that generation like hearing that people debated whether to use mail would sound to us.

  4. Lack of term limits is the shortest cut to corruption.
    There were compelling reasons they were set in the first place.
    Otherwise, look no further than some damning examples of recent history. You can start with Mr. Putin and all those Venezuela kinglets, if you want.

    1. I fully agree on remote meetings and votes. The superior way to go and will be commonplace in the future – chips in the head aside.

      On the term limit abolition, mixed reaction. I like term limits because I do think, whether CEO or rep, 10 years is when you do your most constructive work. Since this is the only office with them, I agree to get rid of it, but strongly urge you to consider thinking about a new law that would impose term limits of some sort- 10 years- IMHO, for all offices. And BTW as a Corproate governance advisor, I say the same for CEO’s of a given company.

    2. I agree. Term limits is a tool that makes sense – it prevents too much power being vested in one office holder for too long. Every person encrusted in the same job for too long becomes stale and unable to think outside of the box. A sitting Senate President can easily curry favors with other senators and be re-elected indefinitely (i.e., until he/she chooses to retire). Having so much power, they can also pick their successors – another extension of their influence. That is not healthy. A competitive election for Senate President after two terms would make other senators aspire to the position and work hard to impress their colleagues. When excellence is needed and desired, competition is always good.

      1. I agree that we need term limits. They discourage corruption and stale thinking. Two terms for the Senate President is very reasonable!

    3. I generally agree with all you wrote except abolishing term limits. Lack of term limits is indeed the shortest path to corruption. Instead of saying this is the only term limited position, perhaps we should term limit other positions as well.

      Thank you for all you have done; I appreciate it very much.

  5. There are several reasons why a state legislator should be required to vote in person rather than by proxy or remote voting:

    Transparency: Voting in person allows for a clear and transparent record of each legislator’s vote, which can be crucial in ensuring accountability to constituents.

    Representation: Voting in person allows legislators to represent their constituents and make decisions on their behalf physically.

    Debate and discussion: In-person voting allows legislators to engage in debate and talk with their colleagues before casting their votes, which can lead to better decision-making.

    Quorum: Requiring legislators to vote in person can help ensure that a quorum is present for essential votes, which is necessary for the legislative process to proceed.

    Personal accountability: Voting in person requires legislators to take responsibility for their vote rather than relying on a proxy or remote voting system.

    These are just a few examples of why a state legislator should be required to vote in person. Ultimately, the decision to require in-person voting can help ensure transparency, accountability, and the effectual functioning of the legislative process.

  6. Agree agree
    Limits are dumb
    We have them ,, it’s called “ the vote”
    Plus too much $$$ for retirement

  7. Will – since you mentioned this issue, do you have any documentation proving that George Floyd died of strangulation? I believe this is incorrect. His difficultly and ultimately inability to breathe was caused by fentanyl or some other illicit drug that was found post-mortem in his system, as I recall was reported in some media outlets. There is video footage showing him foaming at the mouth, slurring his speech, and complaining of difficulty with breathing when he was sitting in the police cruiser prior to when he tried to get away, and the policeman subdued him on the ground and kept kneeling on his back with one knee. That undoubtedly contributed to Floyd’s death, but he was not strangulated (strangulation requires a tightening around the neck). A person not incapacitated with drugs would likely have been able to continue to breathe. Just for the record. I bring it up because I continue to be very bothered by your stated support for legalization of hard drugs.

    1. I think Will’s idea of legalization of drugs is not to condone them, but to create opportunity to better direct people affected by these afflictions to services they may not otherwise be exposed to, considering the stigma which can cause these sufferers to be isolated with their addiction to “hard drugs” (or pharmaceutical prescriptions).

      Floyd said to the officers that he couldn’t breathe, saw him foaming at the mouth, and they didn’t release the knee to the neck..enough said. The video and convictions probably transcends a need for your opinion on the matter of strangulation..

      Thanks Will! Yes on remote meetings. Better if they can be scheduled in evenings so more can attend after work. Judith’s comment on hybridizing (tech/in person) is a good idea-my thoughts also.

      And Karen Spilka has earned my respect, especially on issues of WIFI safety, which our community has yet to address adequately. Why has tech installed so many cell towers without informing the community on this? What are the ramifications of the culminating affect, if any, of so many cells. Fiber optic supposedly runs better with less ability to be hacked, or cause excess radiation, as I understand it.And don’t one have to be a “conspiracy theorist” to ask simple questions on this..Our community has been ill-informed, either way, by being under-informed.

      Not sure though how I feel about term limits; 8 years can be a long time to replace one who was working with integrity than with someone not (think Trump and co.)..opposite can be true also! Have to think this on out.

      1. Elaine – your response brought a wry smile to my face. It’s always the same – the road to hell is paved with good intentions – and that is particularly true on the issue of drugs.

        You worry about the “stigma” that drug users suffer? Stigmatizing behaviors that are bad for society has been the only way to keep those things at bay for as long as humanity has been in existence. So now, let’s remove all the stigma, and see how we’re going to like to live in a society where drug use, prostitution, exploitation of minors, violence, and other related crimes and nuisances are whitewashed – just to remove “stigma” from the perpetrators. I for one, resent anyone who pushes us in that direction.

        Legalizing drugs never ever leads to decreased use. With legalization and lack of “stigma” we only get more users who then perpetuate and accelerate their habit – and it even becomes “fashionable” among impressionable people. If Massachusetts “progressives” have their way, the addicts will be feeding their habit via “well-intentioned” taxpayer funded “safe use” sites – where your tax dollars will be paying for injecting them. What’s not to like? The City of Boston is already distributing drug paraphernalia to addicts.

        If you don’t appreciate a close proximity of cell towers, I assume you would not like “safe use” sites, or legal brothels in your neighborhood – correct? But this is what eliminating “stigma” will produce.

        Did the number of marijuana abusers increase or decrease after marijuana was legalized? I think you know the answer. People who are heavily addicted to marijuana can’t sustain jobs and relationships, are menace on the road, and in some cases develop severe psychosis and proclivity to violence (I could provide many credible links from legitimate medical sources to support that statement).

        Once the stuff is legal, a whole new industry comes out of nowhere to make money on the legalized product – and they have a way to lobby whoever they need to lobby to accommodate their “business needs” – including getting public funding to deal with the very problems the legalization is creating.

        Oregon Hard-Drug Decriminalization a Failure | National Review

        1. I agree Eva. I’m a libertarian on most issues…but not drugs. I’ve seen way to much damage in my own family and friends. This accepting and supporting of drug addiction (both legal and prescriptions) is the cause. I really feel this is by design. We are not far of from the story line in “Brave New World”. They want you drugged out so you are easily managed, docile and most importantly will not form families and have children. The ultimate goal of these new branded eugenicists.

  8. While I agree Senator Spilka has done a great job. I do feel term limits are important. I would rather you agreed to maybe extend the term by another one to two four year terms. I do believe other offices should have term limits. Getting new ideas and people can be good.

  9. I oppose term limits for any office that is directly elected by voters. I think the Speaker and the Senate President should be term limited.

  10. At this point, I don’t believe holding elections are even necessary in this State. The vast majority of seats are unopposed or lack real competition during election cycle. There is no diversity of thought. It really is just a charade.

    1. I agree that we need term limits. They discourage corruption and permit new ideas to come in and energize the legislative process. Two terms for the Senate President is sufficient!

  11. No objection to remote voting. That said most government functions should allow for more remote attendance. One for example would be attending traffic court which should not require physical attendance at the court house to contest a ticket.

  12. Believe term limits,especially in politics is absolutely necessary.Politicians seem to believe ,that no one can do a better job than them.
    Experience counts, but new perspectives moves the needle.
    Believe it is time to have in person meetings.The epidemic is over.I would support, if both are offered to anyone except elected officials and boards.I may be willing to accept some percentage of non in person attendence. If allowed , immediate dismissal for non compliance,as mandatory.
    It is time to think outside the box We need to try new progressive ideas.The old ideologies no longer seem to work or hold people responsible.
    Thank you for today’s update.

  13. I accept remote participation. The important policy is to have participation and votes transparent, open to the public.
    I support term limits on all offices. Reduce the accretion of power of elected and unelected officials to make them more responsive to the public. The governor and others do not have term limits, but should.

  14. This was your worst vote, Will. If a significant part of the rationale was that the other top officers were not term-limited, then the much smarter response would have been to limit their terms too. And your “lame duck” argument is just plain silly. At what point during an 8-year reign does someone become a lame duck?

    Issues change, the electorate changes, new ideas are needed, new expertise, new sensitivities are needed. There is no elected official who can keep up with up with it for decades. New people are need periodically in those top positions. That’s why we need term limits. Otherwise, the leadership calcifies. I’m really disappointed in you on this vote. You’ve lost my support. The Republicans are right on at least one point … Democrats have amassed much too much power on Beacon Hill.

  15. I agree in your support of remote participation. On term limits, It’s too bad that there isn’t some other way to elect a Senate President that is based on how well they are doing the job instead of how much power they have amassed.

  16. Thank you for your service, Will. I am so pleased to see you doing what’s right time and over again. Best, Fay Shtern

  17. Romote voting is fine. Give The Senate President and the Speaker of the House two terms, just like the President of the United States. The power retained by a Senate President or a Speaker of the House is too much power. Give other people a chance…

  18. A hospital administrator explained to me why most jobs last five years: one to learn the ropes, two to install changes that one thinks are needed and two two to defend them from critics This is the first time since I have known you that I have disagreed, so I must be wrong. But to think tht there is only one who can steer the ship suggests a thin bench, which gets thinner with infinite terms. A robust democracy needs
    a strong bench, and crises are endemic. Should be a great Super Bowl, by the way.

  19. I support remote voting, but I also strongly oppose not setting up term limits for every leadership position and for any public office position. Not having term limits is great, when the leadership is working and serving the public interest but is quite the opposite when they are not, the best example is what happened with the supreme court.
    We are in this situation with the Supreme Court, because Mitch McConnell was there to serve the political interest of his party, he deliberately controlled the Senate agenda and stopped the confirmation of justices that did not serve de agenda of the republican party. The same can happen at the state level in Massachusetts.
    Being in a public office should not be a guarantee, and as many already said, having serving limits gives everyone a chance, we need new ideas, we need innovation, and change is not only good for the brain, it is necessary for public office, we need term limits not only on the leadership positions but in every public office at the State and Federal level!!!

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