Lawmaking in Massachusetts

The Legislative Process: Accessible to All

The workings of the legislature are accessible to you as a citizen of Massachusetts. You are strongly encouraged to observe the proceedings at the State House.

Observing a Committee Hearing

Call the House Clerk's office at 617-722-2356 or the Senate Clerk's office at 617-722-1276 or check the newspapers for the schedules of public hearings on legislative proposals. Most hearings occur during the morning, Monday through Thursday, throughout the year, but especially between February and June in the first annual session of the two-year General Court.

Upon arrival at the State House, go to the Legislative Documents Division (Room 428), where you can obtain a copy of the Daily List of Legislative Committee Hearings. It contains a list of bills upon which testimony will be heard on that day. Bills concerning the same general subject are usually grouped together and heard at a single hearing.

Copies of bills under consideration may be secured ei ther in Room 428 or in the hearing room. Also available to you are Bulletins of Committee Work, containing the names of the members of each committee, as well as a listing and brief legislative history of all bills assigned to each committee.

Most hearings are informal. Visitors are allowed to enter and leave the hearing room at any time during the proceedings.

The Senate or House chairpersons conduct hearings on matters before joint committees. Bills are generally discussed in the order of their appearance in the Daily List. Customarily, the testimony of the proponents is presented first, followed by that of the opponents. Legislators and constitutional officers are permitted to speak out of turn.

The hearing ends following completion of testimony on the bills under consideration. Later, the members meet in executive session to discuss the bill as described in Part One of this publication.

Observing the House or Senate in Session

The House of Representatives and the Senate usually meet Monday through Wednesday at 1:00pm informal session, and Thursday at 11:00 a.m. in an informal session (without a calendar). Formal sessions of the House and Senate are broadcast live on local television (Channel 44).

Public galleries for observing the activity within the chambers are located on the fourth floor and visitors are permitted to enter and leave freely. The presiding officers in each chamber are elected by the full membership of the respective branches at the beginning of each biennial session of the legislature.

The presiding officer in the House is the Speaker of the House; in the Senate, the presiding officer is the Senate President. The presiding officer first takes up matters which are not listed in the Calendar such as reconsideration or enactment of bills, and adoption of resolutions and orders. The body then proceeds to those matters listed in the Orders of the Day (the Calendar). Informal or non-calendar sessions consider only non-controversial matters.

You may obtain the Calendar for the House or Senate sessions from the Legislative Documents Division, Room 428. This document will enable you to follow the proceedings of the legislative session.

The clerk of each branch reads each bill by title before any action is taken on it. The clerk's staff records the proceedings of each session. Any member desiring to debate a specific item on the Calendar calls out "pass" when the item is read by the clerk. The item is then "passed" for debate. Af ter all non-controversial items are disposed of, the "passed" items are taken up.

Debate on a bill may occur during the second and third readings. The clerk identifies the bill by title before debate is allowed to begin. Following the conclusion of debate, a vote is taken.

When a vote is taken on a bill, the presiding officer in each branch calls, "all those in favor, say 'aye'; opposed 'nay'." He or she then interprets the consensus of the membership. A member doubting that ruling may request a standing vote or a roll call. The latter is ordered if at least twenty members of the House support it. In the Senate, one-fifth of the members present must support the request for a roll call.

In the Senate, roll call votes are conducted orally. Each member's name is read and the vote recorded, with the results tallied by the clerk. An electronic voting system is used in the House. There, each representative is assigned a desk with a roll call box, which is connected electronically to the roll call boards* in the front of the House chamber. During the vote, a member presses either a "yea" or a "nay" button on his or her desk corresponding respectively to either a green or red light beside the member's name on the roll call board. *The roll call board on the left side of the chamber contains the names of the majority membership, beginning with members of the leadership. The remaining party members are listed below in alphabetical order continuing onto the board on the right side of the chamber. Members of the minority party leaderhip and their members follow.

When the vote is completed, a tally is shown at the top of the boards beneath the number of the bill upon which the vote was taken.