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.
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.