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News and Features: Features

Gridlock

Does Massachusetts have the answer to Washington's paralysis?

BY: Bruce Mohl and Sam Obar
Issue: Fall 2012


Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the word "struvious."

 
President Obama and Speaker John Boehner have become a
symbol of Washington gridlock, unwilling to talk even as the nation
heads for a fiscal cliff. Photo: Alex Wong/EPA/Landov.
It’s customary for the president of the United States to congratulate a new speaker of the House of Representatives. But when Republicans seized control of the House in 2010, President Obama discovered he didn’t have the phone number of John Boehner. According to Bob Woodward’s new book, The Price of Politics, the White House went into panic mode, ultimately tracking down the number from a fishing buddy of the new speaker.

The story offers an important insight into today’s Washington: The nation’s top politicians, particularly those from different parties, often don’t know each other very well. They travel in the same circles and hurl sound bites at one another through the media, but they rarely get to know each other on a more personal level.

Obama and Boehner were almost strangers before Boehner became speaker. But suddenly the two men found themselves trying to negotiate a $1.2 trillion package of spending cuts and revenue increases that carried enormous political risks for both of them. They tried to take the measure of each other on the fly—playing a round of golf, talking on the phone, and chit-chatting before the start of meetings—and discovered they had similar backgrounds and some shared interests. Both are Midwesterners, former state legislators, golfers, and smokers, although Obama is always trying to quit. Most importantly, the idea of negotiating a grand budget compromise appealed to both of them.

Yet ultimately their negotiations ended in failure. Obama says Boehner couldn’t stand up to Tea Party pressure from within the GOP, while Boehner says Obama kept moving the revenue-raising goalposts on him. It got nasty at the end, with the speaker refusing to take the president’s calls just before the talks imploded. After that, the relationship went from bad to worse, with both politicians sniping at each other out on the campaign trail. They have become a symbol of Washington gridlock, unwilling to talk even as the nation heads for a fiscal cliff.

David Abshire, president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, a nonprofit that promotes inclusive leadership in Washington, says politicians need to build a rapport with each other to be effective. One of the biggest changes he’s noticed in Washington over the last 20 years is a sharp decline in personal interaction among politicians. They are less likely to talk outside the soundbite atmosphere and more beholden to special interests. Abshire, who served in the Reagan administration, says the president and then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill were a political odd couple, but they built a personal relationship that allowed them to bridge their differences for the good of the country.

“They’d get together, swap jokes, have drinks, and talk things over,” Abshire says. “To put together deals, you’ve got to know where the other person is coming from.”

Massachusetts officials couldn’t agree more, and that’s why they think they may have the solution for Washington’s political paralysis. It’s fairly simple: Do more talking with each other, away from the cameras and out of the spotlight. Institutionalize regular, weekly meetings where leaders can not only talk about issues and legislation, but, more importantly, get to know each other.

Political leaders on Beacon Hill have been holding these kinds of meetings for more than two decades. Officials in other states get together during times of crisis, but we couldn’t find another state where the leaders gather even when there is little official business for them to talk about. The meetings are not required by law, but have become a tradition, handed down from one administration to the next. The invitees and the tone of the meetings have changed over the years, but the goal remains the same: building relationships that can help bridge differences when the going gets tough.

“It’s the opposite of what you see in Washington in terms of the air wars constantly being fought.” says Bill Weld, the former Republican governor who started the meetings with then-Democratic Speaker Charles Flaherty back in 1991. “You’re less likely to stab someone in the back if you’re going to be having tea and cookies with them next Monday.”

CommonWealth sought to trace how the meetings started, what makes them work, and find out if they could be duplicated elsewhere. We discovered personalities matter, and so do egos. We tried to interview every one of the major participants, a group that includes five governors, four speakers, and four Senate presidents. The only ones who didn’t talk to us were former Speaker Sal DiMasi, who is in prison and struggling with cancer; former Senate President Robert Travaglini, an influential Beacon Hill lobbyist; the state’s current governor, Deval Patrick; and former Gov. Mitt Romney, who is running for president. Everyone else was happy to chat, convinced that the meetings are important for the smooth functioning of Beacon Hill and could be useful in breaking the logjam in Washington.

The Monday meetings

Campaigning for governor in 1990, Bill Weld ran against the Democrats on Beacon Hill. The Republican painted a picture for voters of a place where spending was out of control, hacks thrived, and corruption was rampant. The former federal prosecutor promised to slash spending, throw out the “walruses” (a quirky Weldian reference to layabouts on the public payroll), and clean up the State House. He singled out Senate President William Bulger, a powerful South Boston politician who had helped Weld’s Democratic opponent, John Silber, make it onto the primary ballot. Weld said Bulger personified everything that was wrong with Massachusetts politics, which Weld said was “rotten to the core.” He accused Bulger of intimidating political opponents and putting associates of his gangster brother Whitey on the state payroll. He said it was time for Bulger to leave the Legislature.

After Weld defeated Silber and moved into the governor’s corner office, tension on Beacon Hill intensified. The Massachusetts Miracle of the Dukakis years was in shambles. The state budget was precariously balanced, and Weld made matters worse by leading a very public fight for repeal of a sales tax on services that had been approved by the Legislature. Speaker Flaherty conceded defeat, but indicated the fight wasn’t over. “This is the first round of a 15-round fight and I’m not even into my rope-a-dope strategy,” he told the Boston Globe. The lack of communication on Beacon Hill was so bad that bond-rating agencies were openly expressing concern about it.

“It was terrible. Nothing was getting done,” says Peter Lucas, a newspaper columnist for the Lowell Sun who at the time was an aide to Flaherty.

The budget chiefs in the Senate, the House, and the administration secretly began talking amongst themselves, trying to figure out how to bring the budget into balance. But they knew that their efforts would come to nothing unless the governor, the speaker, and the Senate president started cooperating.

Lucas says he and Peter Berlandi, Weld’s advisor and chief fundraiser, began talking up the idea of a face-to-face meeting between the state’s political leaders. Some members of Weld’s administration, emboldened by the election of enough Republican senators to sustain a gubernatorial veto, thought a scorched-earth policy should be pursued against the Legislature. But Paul Cellucci, Weld’s lieutenant governor and a former state legislator, pushed for an end to the feuding. “The election is over. Massachusetts is close to the brink,” he recalls telling Weld. “We have an obligation to work with the Legislature to solve problems.”

Flaherty made the first move. He invited Weld to a breakfast in a third-floor room he reserved at the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square. Both men were from West Cambridge, but they couldn’t have been more different. Weld was a Yankee and a graduate of Harvard, Harvard Law, and Oxford. Flaherty, an Irish-American and a graduate of Boston College, was fond of saying he and Weld lived five minutes and worlds apart.

Flaherty recalls telling Weld that the standoff couldn’t continue. He says he told Weld that he and Bulger, with their many years of experience in politics, could tie him up in knots, but there was no point to that. “The election is over. You won,” Flaherty told the governor. “I’m not saying you have to stop politicking, but at some point you’ve got to start governing.”

Weld warmed to the idea, and agreed to start meeting with legislative leaders. He wanted Cellucci and the Republican leaders in the House and Senate to participate. Flaherty said he and Bulger would bring the chairmen of their Ways and Means committees. The eight elected officials would meet on Mondays at 3:15, right after Weld’s afternoon squash match at the Boston Racquet Club. Weld says he also hit on the idea of rotating the meetings between the offices of the governor, the speaker, and the Senate president. “It removed any implication that I was summoning anyone,” he says.

The first meeting, according to Weld, was in Bulger’s office, the man he had attacked repeatedly during the campaign. Both men said they didn’t know what to expect from the other. “I thought of him as a rich Yankee, a mossback Republican,” Bulger says. “He had no idea who we were.”

To everyone’s surprise, the group hit it off socially. Sen. Patricia McGovern, the head of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and the only woman at the meeting, drafted an agenda, but no one paid any attention to it. They were too busy having fun. When McGovern got back to her office, her staff asked her how it went. “Awful,” she says. “It was just sort of a guy thing. We’ve got a gun to our heads and they’re all having fun.” Flaherty made the first move, inviting Weld to breakfast in Cambridge.But that was the point. They needed to gain a comfort level with each other before they could start negotiating policy issues. “It wasn’t about making decisions, although we did,” Flaherty says. “It was about building relationships.”

Weld says the participants would discuss issues at the meetings, but deals were rarely cut there. “The unholy deals, the ones where real horse-trading went on, would take place one-on-one,” Weld says. “If I wanted something, I’d always pad down to the other guy’s office. There, some real red meat got cut.”

The first sign of a State House thaw was the orderly passage of a bare-bones state budget, without new taxes. From that success, others followed. Weld succeeded in privatizing some state services, cutting the capital gains tax, and reining in Medicaid spending. But he also forgot about many of his campaign promises to slash the size of state government. He even signed a bill to raise legislative pay by 55 percent.

The Monday meetings became sacrosanct on everyone’s calendar and the gatherings continued right on through the Cellucci and Jane Swift administrations. There was continuity because several participants bridged administrations. The biggest change came during the Cellucci administration when the meeting time was moved from 3:15 to 3, so Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees could beat the rush-hour traffic on the way to his western Massachusetts district.

The conversations during the Monday meetings centered around sports, children, and political gossip. Cellucci talked about the movies he had seen over the weekend. Thomas Finneran, the House Ways and Means chairman who would later become speaker, brought in vegetables from his garden or some food his wife had made.

Weld and Bulger started spouting Shakespeare. Weld says he and Bulger would also talk in Latin and Greek, giving the impression they were cutting secret deals. “It drove Flaherty crazy,” Weld says. Little did the governor know that Flaherty took four years of Latin and three years of Greek at BC High, and knew they were reciting memorized lines.

Thomas Birmingham, who came to the meetings first as the Senate’s budget chief and later as the Senate president, says the group members would often try to stump each other with unusual words and then try to work those words in to press coverage later in the week. “I remember saying at some press event, ‘We all agreed we can’t take a struvious approach to providing cuts in state aid,’” Birmingham says, chuckling at the memory. (Struvious means ostrich-like.)

Weld always came to the meeting from his squash match, so his hair would be wet after showering. At one meeting, Bulger says all of the other participants showed up with their hair wet.

Peter Forman, the Republican leader in the House who today heads the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, says he called the meetings the “Monday afternoon milk and cookies hour.” He said Weld and Bulger would often use the meetings to practice their jokes for Bulger’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in South Boston. “By the time the breakfast came along, we were sick of hearing the same jokes over and over again,” he says.

But the meetings were not all fun and games. Finneran says Weld took the meetings very seriously. “For him this was almost like an anthropological study,” Finneran says. “Who are these people? What makes them tick?”

Thomas Trimarco, who was working in the treasurer’s office and was invited to some of the early meetings, says Weld was focused. “He saw it as a game, a chess match,” says Trimarco, who currently works at O’Neill & Associates and is a member of the MassINC board.

Finneran remembers Weld threatening to veto some revenue-raising measure, but then mentioning that if his veto were overridden he would be happy to have the revenues. Forman remembers Weld plotting strategy at the meetings. Weld would advocate publicly for an extreme position on an issue, knowing full well he would take a pounding from lawmakers. But that pounding would set the stage for a compromise the group had already agreed to. “The political theater was actually scripted in these meetings,” Forman says.

Weld also cultivated Bulger, and not just with Latin and Greek. He says he pushed for increased funding for several projects important to Bulger, including renovations to the L Street Bathhouse in South Boston and the public library system. He even offered to nominate Bulger—the man Weld once described as the personification of everything that is wrong in Massachusetts politics—for a judgeship in the South Boston District Court.

Bulger turned down the judgeship, but when the president’s job at the University of Massachusetts became available in 1995, Bulger says he called Weld to ask him what he thought. He says Weld encouraged him to go for it, and helped pave the way for his appointment.

Romney and Patrick

Under Mitt Romney and Deval Patrick, the Monday afternoon meetings changed. Aides to the political leaders started attending in droves. The gatherings became less social and more business-like. There was also less gubernatorial enthusiasm. Romney, toward the end of his term, begged off a number of meetings because of travel. Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Therese Murray took off the month of August this year, but then Patrick canceled the meetings during September and October as he went into campaign mode for Obama. Former Gov. Mitt Romney did not talk to CommonWealth, but at the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 he indicated that, if elected, he would hold meetings with Congressional leaders in Washington the same way he did on Mondays with legislative leaders in Massachusetts. "I've done it before. I'll do it again," he said. (See comments at 84:12 of debate.)Romney and Patrick were also newcomers to politics, and the meetings, at least initially, reflected that. “They are surprised, particularly coming out of the corporate world, that they don’t run everything,” Murray says. She said Romney was particularly troubled by it. “It was frustrating for him to see we weren’t his board of directors.”

Interestingly, Murray says no one at the meetings ever broached the subject with either governor. “Eventually they figure it out,” she says.

In some ways, Romney followed the same script as Weld in running for governor. Romney was less strident about the Legislature, but he urged people to vote for him to avoid total Democratic control of Beacon Hill. In one ad, he coined the term the “Gang of Three” to describe the

triumvirate that would rule Beacon Hill if Democrat Shannon O’Brien were elected. The other gang members were Finneran and Senate President Robert Travaglini. “This is the group of people who want to take Massachusetts back to the days of single-party monopoly, where a few people can sit in a room and make any decision they want to,” Romney said at the time.

Yet once Romney prevailed at the ballot box, he moved quickly to mend fences with the Democratic leaders and began participating in the Monday meetings with them. Travaglini puckishly welcomed him to membership in the Gang of Three.

Romney didn’t bring along Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey to the meetings. Instead, he brought his secretary of administration and finance, Eric Kriss. Healey declined to discuss why she wasn’t included. The rest of the key meeting participants remained the same: the speaker, the Senate president, the Ways and Means chairs, and the Republican minority leaders.

Participants say the meetings were cordial and often productive. Romney and the other group members often swapped stories and the governor graciously invited the participants to his son’s wedding reception. Yet the focus was more on getting things done and less on the relationship-building that occurred earlier.

“Obviously, Mitt Romney and Bill Weld are two different people,” says a diplomatic House Minority Leader Brad Jones. “Mitt may be a bit more focused on the business aspects of the meeting.”

The group dynamics worsened in 2004 after Romney recruited 100 Republican candidates to challenge incumbent Democrats in the Legislature. The effort was a colossal failure, but it changed the atmosphere of the Monday meetings. “The temperature was a little different,” Murray acknowledges. Yet, again, the legislative challenges were never discussed openly in the meetings, she says.

Kriss says the GOP candidates did not go over well with the Democrats. “Their reaction was: ‘How dare you run someone against us,’” he says. “It became: ‘We’re going after Romney with a vengeance.’”

When DiMasi replaced Finneran as speaker in 2004, the chemistry changed even more. Trimarco, who served as Romney’s secretary of administration and finance during the second half of his term, says Travaglini and Romney respected each other. But he says Romney and DiMasi didn’t get along. “That was a tough relationship there,” he says. “Everybody would be polite. I don’t remember anything unpleasant being said. It just wasn’t as productive as one would want. It didn’t click with the personalities.”

As Romney pushed more aggressively for his health care legislation, Trimarco says the relationship between Romney and DiMasi became more strained. He says DiMasi stayed away from many meetings because he felt Romney and Travaglini were ganging up on him.

DeLeo, who sat in during the Romney meetings as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and continued with Patrick as speaker, saw a difference in the meetings the two governors ran. “I find Romney to be a very cordial and gracious person, but I didn’t find the meetings as fruitful as with Gov. Patrick,” he says.

Patrick’s election changed the political dynamics of the meetings dramatically. Instead of a Republican governor meeting with Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, the meetings for the first time featured an all-Democrat cast at the top. Patrick accentuated that one-party atmosphere by excluding the Republican minority leaders from the House and Senate.

The Republican leaders say Patrick promised to have separate meetings with them every other week, but after the first meeting he never scheduled another one. “Mr. Inclusive doesn’t include us,” Jones says of Patrick. “It makes it extremely clear that this is one party government: Of the party, by the party, and for the party.”

Both Jones and his Senate counterpart, Bruce Tarr, now meet regularly with the Democratic leaders of their respective branches.

Cellucci says it’s a shame the Monday meetings had become an all-Democrat affair. “People are complaining about all the partisanship. It’s better to have everyone in the room trying to work together,” he says.

But Lees, the former Senate minority leader, says he understands why Patrick would exclude the Republicans. He said they were only included in the first place because they were members of the governor’s party. “These were informational meetings, so the majority party would know what was coming from the governor’s office,” he says.

Murray says she doesn’t know why Patrick ousted the Republicans. “Maybe he felt he could be more open without them there,” she says. “We’re of the same party, so you don’t have to dance around the elephant in the room.”

Better to talk

Every person who participated in the Monday meetings says they were worthwhile. There is also an emerging consensus about what makes them work: They need to be held weekly, they need to be loosely organized, and there needs to be a real conversation.

“It’s much better to talk,” Bulger says. “The practical value of it was we wouldn’t get into a public stalemate over some stupid thing.”

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, who attends the Monday meetings, says the key to their success is talking. “People wonder why government is not working. A lot of it’s because people don’t talk or listen,” he says. “You can’t do that through sound bites on a radio show, in print, or on TV. You can’t really have a conversation that way.”

DeLeo says the meetings change the participants without them realizing it. “It breaks the ice in terms of seeing the human side of someone, so when you get into the nuts and bolts of issues, you feel a little freer to express yourself,” he says.

Forman, the former Republican House leader, says the meetings overall were good for the state, but they had some undesirable side effects. What began as a top-down approach to deal with a fiscal emergency became a top-down approach to nearly everything, Forman says. “Everyone got used to the efficiency of leadership providing a solution and some political cover,” he says.

This top-down approach was exemplified by the one-on-one budget negotiations that took place in 1999 between Finneran and Birmingham on a State House balcony. It was as if the rest of the Legislature was irrelevant.

But the balcony budget negotiations gained notoriety because they occurred out in the open. It’s hardly news that powerful politicians work out their differences one on one or in small groups; that’s how compromises are reached. But the problem in Washington is that those one-on-one meetings are becoming rarer and rarer. When Obama and Boehner played a round of golf together, it was major news.

“That’s the problem down there. No one talks to each other. That’s what’s ruining our country right now,” says Richard Tisei, a Republican running for Congress in the Sixth District and a former minority leader in the Massachusetts Senate. Tisei was barred from the Monday meetings by Patrick, but he says he met on a weekly basis with Senate President Murray. He says she became his closest friend in the Senate. “We didn’t agree on every issue, but we knew where we were coming from,” he says.

Murray does agree with him on the need for Washington officials to start talking more. “I would love to see Washington sit down at a table with each other and put this stuff aside,” she says. “They’re playing with fire and they need to sit down with a hose.”  

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Recent Comments View all 1 Comments
meterman
Says on 10.11.2012
at 12:25 PM
After reading this article I was left wondering if the departure from face to face meetings in Washington isn't just a sign of the times. Lets face it, the world has changed drastically with cellphones now being an appendage of one's arm along with e-mail, teleconferencing, texting and tweets. There was a time when face to face meetings were the norm, not an innovation.

I know that face to face meetings are productive and I can't see how technology will ever replace the the effectiveness of face to face networking. So I agree that Washington can combat partisanship gridlock by employing some of the "old ways".

Actually, all you whippersnappers starting out in business, it might be a good idea for you too.
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