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"Informal sessions" -- an unconstitutional sham on Massachusetts citizens

Corruption, laziness, and arrogance by legislators

POSTED: October 13, 2010

The Massachusetts Constitution specifically requires a majority of the House or Senate to conduct business.

Article XXXIII. A majority of the members of each branch of the general court shall constitute a quorum for the transaction of business, but a less number may adjourn from day to day, and compel the attendance of absent members. All the provisions of the existing constitution inconsistent with the provisions herein contained are hereby annulled.

This is not difficult math. The House has 160 members and the Senate has 40 members, so you need 81 House members and 21 Senators present to conduct business legally.

But when it suits them, the Legislature simply ignores that requirement and meets with as few as two members in the chamber. They then proceed to pass laws with a "gentleman's agreement" that no one present will ask for a quorum count, so they pretend there is a quorum. They call these "informal sessions" and carry on as if they were legitimate. The elected officials and media all play along with this.

As part of the "gentleman's agreement", if a House or Senate member wants to stop an informal session, he just stands and says "I doubt the presence of a quorum" and the meeting is gaveled to an end. In other words, the Legislature understands that informal sessions are technically illegal. This happens rarely because it's considered "not going along." It's what Rep. Karyn Polito did all last week (see above) and it made them pretty upset.

(In addition, the Legislature exempts itself from the state's Open Meeting Laws. Unlike every other public body in Massachusetts, the public is banned from taking photos or videos of the Legislature in session. Thus, to expose the "informal sessions" you have to go there yourself and take notes.)

Legislators love "informal sessions"

Massachusetts legislators love informal sessions because:

(1) They can pass pet bills and controversial bills that otherwise would get stalled if the entire Legislature looked them over.

They push things through quickly and avoid dealing with amendments and uncomfortable debate.

They can avoid having their votes recorded since there are no roll call votes in informal sessions (any recorded votes would reveal there was no quorum).

They're lazy. The majority of legislators who aren't interested in the particular bills that day don't have to show up, and no one back home knows they've been skipping votes.


A sleazy way of doing the people's business

Besides the fact that it's a corrupt way to legislate, the obvious problems with this include:

  • The constitution doesn't allow for pretend quorums. There must be an ACTUAL quorum.
  • Legislators take an oath of office to uphold the Constitution. They may not knowingly allow phony sessions.
  • Even corporations are required to record attendees of board meetings. Who ever heard of an official body meeting without recording the names of the members present? Why shouldn't the public know if their legislator is present?
  • The public pays them to come to work and vote. Instead they often use the tiime to work second jobs, campaign, or vacation.
  • Purposely avoiding roll call votes is unethical at best. The public has a right to know how their legislators vote.
  • Would laws passed this way hold up to a court challenge? They are compromising the entire legislative process. Are these laws actually legal if the Governor signs them?

But in fact, far more bills are "passed" this way by the Massachusetts Legislature than through legitimate means!

It's actually done quite openly. There are several "informal sessions" scheduled and publicized in advance every month. You can go and watch them from the visitors' balcony, though of course unlike legal sessions they're not televised (and all photos and videos of the proceedings are prohibited).

Examples of abuses using "informal sessions"

As described above, few people are aware that far more bills are passed into "law" through informal sessions than through lawful, legitimate means. Many such bills are include pet projects for state legislators, special favors to benefit a particular person or state employee, and requests from a city or town. Others are controversial or unpopular bills that could not get through the normal process - thus bypassing debate, amendments, roll calls, and public scrutiny.

Just a few (of many) examples of controversial bills that became law via informal sessions:

  • The recent $443 million state budget item using federal Medicaid money.
  • The "Move Over Law" was passed by two Senators and six Representatives in December, 2008. It imposes a $100 fine for not moving over if there's an emergency vehicle on the side of the road. It's a poorly written law and as a result a high percentage of cases have been thrown out of court by judges. It was rushed through informal sessions after proponents weren't able to get it passed normally.
  • In late 2008 the legislature passed a law via informal sessions (including a Senate session with just two Senators) on breastfeeding in public which imposes a $500 fine for criticizing a woman breastfeeding in public. The bill had stalled in normal sessions. It's now state law.

Sample State House News report from an informal session

There's at least one every week. Most informal sessions are more mundane, but still very problematic. Here's from a recent State News Report of the Senate's Sept. 2 informal session where three senators were passing laws:

State House News

CONVENES: The Senate convened at 11:09 a.m., Sen. Ken Donnelly presiding and Sens. Fargo and Hedlund attending. Members and staff recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

RESOLUTIONS: The Senate adopted resolutions filed by Sens. Fargo and Spilka.

PETITION REFERRAL: The Senate referred a Moore, Tarr, Binienda and Peterson petition regarding marine vessels to the Transportation Committee.

SICK LEAVE BANK: The Senate adopted a Ways and Means substitute amendment to H 4575 establishing a sick leave bank for Meridyth L. Reith, an employee of the Department of Environment Protection and ordered the bill as amended to third reading, then engrossed it.

BILLERICA CIVIL SERVICE: The Senate ordered to third reading and engrossed H 4391 exempting certain clerical positions from the civil service law in the town of Billerica.

MILFORD ALCOHOL: The Senate ordered to third reading and engrossed H 4937 to authorize the town of Milford to grant a license for the sale of all alcoholic beverages not to be drunk on the premises

Obviously our legislators are too lazy to be bothered with most of the business we elected them to attend to, and are willing to let others push their bills through unchallenged.

Legislators, public officials, all in the tank on informal sessions

Everybody goes along. It's an eerie kind of conspiracy against the public,  bolstering the longstanding reputation of corruption in Massachusetts politics.

Last year, soon after the "Move Over" law was passed in informal sessions, MassResistance went up and down the halls and pressed the media, public officials, and others about whether informal sessions are legal and constitutional.

As we last year, here are some of the answers we got:

  • Legislators. We had already asked a number of legislators who told us, basically, that they thought it was legal (but couldn't demonstrate exactly how). Scott Brown - then a state senator - told us that since the House and Senate rules allowed it, it must be legal, despite our observations of what the Constitution says.
  • House and Senate Clerks' offices.  We went to the Senate Clerk's office. We were told repeatedly that "the Senate assumes there's a quorum unless somebody asks for a count." At the House Clerk's office we were told that "that's just the way they've done things." None of them would address the constitutional issue.
  • Lawyers, etc. We've talked to lots of lawyers and even a constitutional law professor. All of them basically agreed that we were right - but none of them are willing to say anything publicly.

It's time for the people to take this into their own hands.