Three Massachusetts Speakers indicted, the most recent, Sal De Masi, sent to the slammer for eight years. With Massachusetts reeling from the scandalous pattern, Representative Bob DeLeo became the man of the hour in 2009 when, on becoming Speaker, he successfully pushed for term limits for the position. DeLeo ascribed the change as reflecting the need for fresh ideas. It was really about ethics reform, to clean up the tainted image of the House, and the reform was widely heralded. Last week, recently re-elected to what would have been the last of his four two-year terms, however, he allowed as how he had changed his mind, again, and maneuvered the House (on a party-line vote) to eliminate the four-term cap. Now he can be Speaker for life.
DeLeo is an amiable guy, and, from what I gather, a supporter of important state services and a fairly effective mediator of differences among Representatives of varied locales and constituencies. But he is an insider’s insider (note his being included as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Probation Department patronage case), and with this move, the very person who was a breath of fresh air in 2009, has allowed a rather malodorous scent to reenter the august chamber of the House.
The rationale dutifully provided by his legions, who did his bidding in Thursday’s, was that having a lame duck Speaker would destroy the balance of power among the three co-equal branches of state government. That hardly seems the case. In fact, with incoming Senate President Stan Rosenberg and new governor Charlie Baker, DeLeo was in the strongest role and could be positioned to have even more power for the next couple of years. If House members were really concerned about the potential weakening of their clout, they could have elected a new Speaker.
De Leo says lifting the term limit cap will permit him to complete unfinished state business. Cynics will tell you that he only undid the 2009 reform to be able to collect a larger pension whenever he does retire, all the more so if salaries are raised in response to the recommendations of the special commission on compensation. I have no personal knowledge that the pension payoff entered his motivation. But he could lay that repugnant assertion to rest, and restore for himself his earlier white knight image, by pushing the House to modify its term limit elimination vote, namely: permit a Speaker to serve multiple terms without limit, but he or she would receive the higher Speaker’s salary for only the first four terms as Speaker. After that, compensation and pension calculations would be based at only the committee chair level. Staying on under those conditions would surely demonstrate a selfless commitment to lead. Don’t hold your breath.
Regardless of how you regard Bob DeLeo, his term limit elimination ploy reeks of the bad old days, just at a time when the state faces huge challenges (a $750 million deficit, to name just one) and needs a legislative process that is deliberative, grown up and democratic (with a small d.)
I welcome your comments in the section below.