THAT MASSACHUSETTS LAWMAKERS are a scurvy lot is not exactly breaking news. In his notes on the Constitutional Convention of 1787, James Madison records the comments of Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts delegate and future governor, on the caliber of Bay State politicians:
"In Massachusetts the worst men get into the Legislature," Gerry told the convention, and "several members of that body had lately been convicted of infamous crimes." The State House was a place where "men of indigence, ignorance, and baseness spare no pains, however dirty, to carry their point." Not much has changed in 222 years, except that there are now women of indigence, ignorance, and baseness to go along with the men.
Gerry was pointing out that democracy is no guarantee of good government, since voters often elect meritless hacks. But even he might have marveled at the willingness of Massachusetts voters in our day to keep voting the bums in instead of throwing them out. Year in, year out, election after election, the overwhelming majority of state legislators are re-elected, often without even the formality of a challenge. Nothing the Legislature does ever seems to perturb voters long enough to make a difference on Beacon Hill -- not spending the state into near-insolvency, not passing the largest tax hikes in Massachusetts history, not gutting initiatives passed at the ballot box, not marching in lockstep behind corrupt legislative leaders, not stuffing the public payroll with their relatives.
No wonder so many state senators and representatives have absorbed the lesson that voter anger can be safely ignored -- or, at most, appeased with a gesture. "If people don't like it," state lawmaker Joan Menard suggested smugly some years ago, when the Legislature was taking heat for having voted itself an "emergency" pay raise of 55 percent, "let them be mad at us for now and let it . . . go away."
And go away it does, generally well before Election Day. Why should this time around be any different?
The Globe reported in a front-page story last week that "the political and ethical culture on Beacon Hill has reached its lowest point in decades" and that Massachusetts "residents are in no mood to give much respect to those who work on Beacon Hill." One state rep, Dennis Guyer of Dalton, says he is "in shock" to find drivers on the highway giving him the finger. Far from being shocked, however, other legislators simply shrug off the public's ire. "We're doing the important work that the people send us to Beacon Hill to do," says Representative David Linsky, a Natick Democrat. Adds House Speaker Robert DeLeo: "We can't let one incident wash away all the good that we have done."
You'll forgive me, Mr. Speaker, but it's a little tough for some of us to focus on "all the good" you and your colleagues have been doing when your predecessor becomes the third speaker in a row to face criminal charges. Or when two state senators resign after being indicted -- one for taking bribes, the other for assaulting women in public. Or when a series of news reports exposes the scams by which politicians dramatically increase publicly-funded pensions for themselves and their friends. Or when your members refuse to abolish a pair of phony "holidays" whose only real purpose is to give government employees two extra paid vacation days.
Former Massachusetts House Speaker Sal Dimasi speaks to reporters following his indictment in federal court on June 2
Does "all the good" Beacon Hill has accomplished include the 25 percent increase in the state sales tax that both legislative chambers voted for? Does it include the automatic pay raise lawmakers pocketed this year as tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents were losing their jobs? Does it include the hike in the gasoline tax that is beginning to seem like a done deal?
Last week, after months of media scrutiny, the Legislature finally voted to eliminate some of the most egregious abuses in the public pension system. For any self-respecting Massachusetts voter, it was far too little, far too late; come Election Day 2010, they still have every intention of voting against Beacon Hill's fetid political culture.
But how many such voters are there? Already lawmakers are claiming credit for having taken a "monumentally important step" last week, and having "begun to restore the public's trust … in government." Hard to believe that anyone would swallow such self-serving codswallop. Then again, Massachusetts voters have long had pretty low standards. As Elbridge Gerry could have told you.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)