No, good government on Beacon Hill will not lead to bad government

You would think that reforming the opaque workings of the Massachusetts legislature would be something everyone could agree on. In fact, though, you can always find someone to defend the status quo.

Last summer, for example, New England School of Law Professor Lawrence Friedman wrote in The Boston Globe that the legislature should keep its exemption from the state’s public records law even though Massachusetts is only one of just four states with such a secrecy statute.

“It is not difficult to imagine state representatives and senators censoring themselves out of concern that their words might be taken out of context,” Friedman wrote. “Perspectives about proposed laws and their implications could go unshared and, therefore, unconsidered.”

Now Raymond La Raja, a political science professor at UMass Amherst, has written a commentary for CommonWealth magazine arguing that efforts to make committee votes public are misguided and would lead to more power for the legislative leadership. Such a move would also create incentives for grandstanding by members, La Raja argues, conjuring up the dysfunction in Washington as a warning:

Congress is an obvious example of where “messaging” has become more important to many than legislating. Using Twitter, members can score political points against opponents, shame colleagues, and try to torpedo discussions on policy. Calling out colleagues on committee votes or internal deliberations is especially valuable to extremists who value purity. The model here is the Freedom Caucus, whose members call other Republicans “RINOs” (Republicans in name only) and threaten to enlist primary opponents against them. This kind of behavior erodes goodwill and the ability to forge the kind of compromises that make democracy possible.

CommonWealth contributor Colman M. Herman disagrees, writing that the Massachusetts legislature “is one of the least transparent legislatures in the entire nation.” Herman is right. And the idea that good government will lead to bad government is absurd. If our elected officials need secrecy in order to do the right thing, then we are in mighty bad shape.