I Respectfully Disagree, Mr. Speaker

Matthew C. Patrick

February 5, 2015

I watched with disbelief as the recent spectacle of the Speaker of the House played out in the news and the press.  He sadly tried to rationalize his move do away with term limits for his position.  The irony is he was a proponent for the measure when he became speaker six years ago.  But the arguments for term limits are stronger than ever.  The following are excerpts from a letter I sent to my former colleagues in 2011:

I sat in front of his speech for ten years and the greatness of it never hit me until I read it again in the newspaper on its 50th anniversary.  I’m speaking of President John F. Kennedy’s City on the Hill speech originally delivered January 9th 1961.  The speech is on bronze plaque in front of the Chamber of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in which I served from 2001 through 2010.  I read the bronze version before but the utter brilliance of it didn’t hit me until recently possibly because I had been urging my colleagues to refresh and renew the democracy in the “Peoples’ House”.

The Massachusetts House can regain the public confidence if it changes its power structure.  Too much power resides in the Speaker and as such is a constant opportunity for abuse.  It will be used and misused, at times, simply because it is available and if not this Speaker then another Speaker.  They will say that we have a good man in there now but that is not the point.  The people’s trust should not reside in the attitude or personality of any one person.  I don’t think anyone should want to undertake that responsibility once they understand the true burden that it is.

Like in Kennedy’s time, the U.S. and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are facing grave times.  Government is broke; both the Federal and State tax systems are upside down; the economy is in a shambles; the middle class is disappearing because manufacturing jobs that support middle class families are gone; the gap between rich and poor in the U.S. is the largest in the industrialized world and Massachusetts has the largest gap between rich and poor in the 50 states; and confidence in our government is at an all-time low.

Voters wonder if our elected officials can handle the problems confronting us. They don’t want more taxes because they are afraid the money will be wasted or even worse, stolen.  Organizations that are derogatory and dismissive of elected officials have formed and they are indiscriminate in their vengeance.  Public political speech in print and electronic media is angry and inflammatory.

Clearly, we are at a cross road and there is a lot of important work to be done. However, we don’t have the confidence of the people to make the dramatic changes that need to be made.  This is exactly what President Kennedy was talking about in the last half of his speech.  Do we as legislators have the moral authority necessary to govern during times of crisis?  This is what Kennedy was talking about when he said,

History will not judge our endeavors and a government cannot be selected – merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation.  Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these.  For of those to whom much is given, much is required.  And when at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each one of us – recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities to the state – our success or failure, in whatever office we may hold, will be measured by the answers to four questions:

First, were we truly men of courage – with the courage to stand up to one’s enemies – and the courage to stand up, when necessary, to one’s associates – the courage to resist public pressure, as well as private greed?

Secondly, were we truly men of judgment – with perceptive judgment of the future as well as the past – of our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others – with enough wisdom to know that we did not know, and enough candor to admit it?

Third, were we truly men of integrity – men who never ran out on either the principles in which they believed or the people who believed in them – men who believed in us – men whom neither financial gain nor political ambition could divert from the fulfillment of our sacred trust?

Finally, were we truly men of dedication – with and honor mortgaged to no single individual or group, and compromised by no private obligation or aim, but devoted solely to serving the public good and the national interest.

Eliminating the term limits for the Speaker of the House is a mistake.  The Massachusetts Legislature still lacks the confidence of the people and it will need to work hard to get it back.  Right now, they are going in the wrong direction.