TODAY’S HEARING before the Joint Committee on Elections marks a test for Massachusetts’ legislative leaders. With the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts risks being without a senator for five months. The Legislature should allow an interim appointment to make sure that the state doesn’t go without representation. It is as basic a task as any handled on Beacon Hill.
But the task is complicated because the Democratic supermajority in both houses used its veto-proof power five years ago to take away the right of the then-Republican governor to make an interim appointment. And the new leaders of those same majorities worry that changing course would alert the world to the crass, partisan nature of that earlier exercise of power. So the decision on whether to allow an interim appointment has become tangled up in legislative vanity.
It’s now about more than leaving the state’s interests unprotected. It’s about whether the supermajorities are getting in the way of effective government.
Dominant one-party control of the Massachusetts Legislature has been such a fact of life that the rest of the political landscape has altered to accommodate it. Voters have chosen political outsiders as governor to serve as counterweights to excessive legislative control. But the House and Senate leaders have often run roughshod over those governors. At times, it seemed as if the greatest check on the House speaker and Senate president were not the governor but the press and prosecutors. One legislative leader after another has fallen to scandal.
Still, voters regularly re-elect their senators and House members. Many incumbents benefit from having huge campaign-finance war chests, but it’s safe to conclude that Massachusetts voters tend to prefer the Democratic Party. And that party’s legislative majorities have, at times, been capable of working with governors on important achievements, from the education reforms of the ’90s to the universal health bill of 2006 to recent clean-energy initiatives.
But at some other points, the legislative leadership has acted drunk with power, making reasonable people yearn for balance and debate. The 2004 decision to strip the governor of the right to choose an interim senator was one such abuse. Now, depriving Massachusetts of representation in the US Senate to cover up for a past mistake would be another act of surpassing arrogance. The coming vote is a test, indeed - a test of the Legislature’s ability to look beyond its nose and do what’s clearly right for the Commonwealth.