A House divided

One party rule ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, unless you are a military strongman or former KGB operative with the force to back it up.

That’s the clear lesson not only on Capitol Hill — where Republicans control all three power centers and find themselves squabbling with each other and the White House over the fine points of what really is a unified reverse Robin Hood strategy.

But there are similar warning signs on Massachusetts’ Beacon Hill where, despite a firm Democratic grip on both houses, legislators have failed to accomplish much beyond raising their own pay.

The tension between House and Senate is both traditional and well-documented. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg (full disclosure: I have worked for Rosenberg) have both philosophical and stylistic differences.

DeLeo, who is very much a top-down leader, also has both the constitutional requirement to control the purse strings and the numbers to control the work of the joint committees, creating a natural tension. The Speaker’s moderate stand on taxes and spending also separate him from Rosenberg.

In large measure that is what’s behind the failure of conferees to come to a compromise on changes to the recreational marijuana law approved by voters last fall. The House is showing top-down tendencies to rewrite the law while the Senate, which operates in a less centralized way, prefers to simply tinker around the edges.

But it appears a rift may be opening within the House itself with the announcement that House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey is bolting the building for a top lobbying job.

That news stunned colleagues who did not see it coming — least of all as lawmakers gear up for their annual madhouse push to a July break. After all, in addition to the marijuana morass the budget remains on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk with expected veto overrides on the docket.

Pundits postulate Dempsey, DeLeo’s heir apparent, is tired of waiting for the Winthrop Democrat to step down. After all, the House overwhelmingly voted to eliminate a rule that limited DeLeo to four two-year terms with the gavel and while the pay hikes for leadership were substantial the salaries are nowhere near what can be made by switching sides.

That’s likely true but it’s fascinating to ponder why this announcement is coming before, not after lawmakers break for the summer. Surely both Dempsey and the folks at Mintz, Levin could have waited a few weeks for business to conclude.

The pending resignation will clearly shake up House operations as lawmakers lobby for the Ways and Means chairmanship and a seat closer to the throne whenever DeLeo opts to step aside.

That in turn could affect the already slow pace and chilly relationship between the branches with not just the marijuana legislation but virtually every other piece of business pending in what has so far been a very unproductive session.

Lawmakers will return after Labor Day for about two months with a full plate. And the prospect for an even less productive 2018 that includes a likely Baker re-election bid along with voting for all 200 legislative seats, and a tradition that lawmakers spin their wheels until after the deadline for potential challengers to file nomination papers.

Memo to those who love one-party rule: be careful what you wish for. The overwhelming Democratic majority in Massachusetts isn’t likely to fall any time soon. But the signs for the GOP majority on Capitol Hill are far less rosy.

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