Going Home and Missing the Action
By Jon Marcus
Jon Marcus, a frequent contributor to AJR, is executive editor of Boston Magazine. He once worked for the AP.
M ASSSACHUSETTS LEGISLATORS DRANK, caroused and slumbered through an all-night session while their leaders added nearly $200 million to the state budget, apparently illegally recording the votes of absent members while the rank and file chanted "Toga! Toga! Toga!" on the House floor. Lawmakers partied in a committee office, purportedly shaved a freshman colleague's leg as a prank while he was sleeping, then fell asleep themselves in a cloakroom, snoring so loudly they could be heard outside in the hall. "Will the House please come to order?" one member implored. "No!" his giddy, giggling colleagues shouted back.
Even in Massachusetts, known for its outlandish political behavior, such fraternity house conduct incited widespread outrage. But one thing was left out of the follow-up coverage: There had been no reporters in the chamber that night, out of a Statehouse press corps that numbers in the dozens. It took days before the legislators' most egregious personal conduct was reported. Except for staffers of a news service that tracks vote totals from an office in the press room, the reporters had all gone home, even though they knew the House remained in session and was likely to vote on major budget items.
In their absence, and in the middle of the night, Democratic House leaders gutted campaign finance reforms approved by voters and weakened six-year-old restrictions on lobbyists that had been passed after a series of corruption cases. Only one of the 160 House members protested; many of the rest wandered away to an ill-timed beer-and-wine-tasting event that was being held elsewhere in the Statehouse, drank together in a committee office, or left on vacation, apparently unaware their votes were being cast by proxy. Some on the House floor joked aloud about the raucous atmosphere. Even House Speaker Thomas Finneran quipped at one point that the session sounded like a keg party.
"When I started to hear 'Toga! Toga!' I looked over at the press gallery, and there was nobody there," says Ken White, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts and a former reporter who attended the entire session and suggested unsuccessfully that the members of the Statehouse press corps form a pool to monitor the all-night deliberations. "What went through my mind was, 'Is this the way it always is?' And had there been members of the media to cover it, we would have gotten some idea of that."
The session lasted through Thursday night, April 13, and into Friday morning. While the Boston Globe reported on Saturday about the weakening of the lobbying and campaign finance laws, details of the disorderly behavior did not begin to filter out until Monday, when the Globe related the "Toga! Toga! Toga!" outbreak, and a responding plea from the speaker's rostrum that the "Animal House" come to order.
Then, almost a week after the session, the Boston Herald devoted much of its front page to the incidents, basing its reporting on anecdotal accounts, public records and videotapes from two House cameras. The stationary cameras show only the podium, and not the gallery, but pick up background noise.
Reporters from the two major dailies say they left the House between about 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. because their deadlines had passed. "It's a matter of practicality," says Cosmo Macero Jr., who covered the story for the Herald. "There's an expectation that on the following day, you can catch up." Besides, he says, "in Massachusetts it's not a mystery as to which way it's going to go. The leadership has dictated that."
Globe Statehouse Bureau Chief Frank Phillips also says it was a better use of resources to leave after the deadline passed, then come back and reconstruct events the next day.
But Phillips says the real story wasn't the unruly conduct of the legislators. "Those antics have always gone on in budget sessions," he says. "It's a way of relieving some tension." He also says the Herald overstated the alleged debauchery.
The real misbehavior, Phillips says, was at the podium‹"the late-night, wee-hours taking up of budget riders that had to do with the most fundamental issues of integrity in the government process with no roll call, no debate, no public notice, no hearing, no input. That is the violation, and this to me is where the outrage should be. It had nothing to do with some reps having a few beers in the back room."
Common Cause's White still wants to know where the reporters were. "At what point does the world-weariness of the Statehouse, and of the shenanigans over there, flop over into just giving up and saying, 'This is the way it's done?' " he asks.
The Herald's Macero says that, in hindsight, "It's not a stretch to say we should have been there. This episode certainly makes us want to be there all night, every night."
But it was Finneran, the speaker, who made what may serve as the most cutting, if unintended, criticism of the absent press. It's the media's job to watch over the legislators, Finneran told the Globe, with no small amount of irony, when asked to justify the all-night session. "You bring in the light, and in the light we have to make these decisions."