Senate President Robert E. Travaglini gaveled the Constitutional Convention to order yesterday. After lawmakers surprisingly withdrew a slew of expected amendments, sparing onlookers endless confusion and boredom, Massachusetts legislators shocked a packed gallery by taking a vote. Just 43 minutes after convening, legislators rejected a measure that would have started a constitutional amendment on its way to the 2006 ballot. . . .
Actually, I could even settle for this: After minimal debate and only a few parliamentary ruses by House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran that were quickly rejected, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a bill that would ban gay marriage and create civil unions. The measure will have to be passed by a subsequent Legislature and then by voters to become law, a process that would take until November 2006 to complete.Alas, there isn't much chance of reading that tomorrow morning, either. Now, I am quite fond of state politics, even in its less-than-stellar moments. I don't mind wrangling, and can generally keep up with the arcane parliamentary procedures. I'm fine with sessions that go into the night. Perhaps this is a sign of instability, but I enjoy them.
This debate, though, is a little harder to look forward to.
At this point, the issue of gay marriage has been debated ad nauseum. Lawmakers have won praise for the "high level" of debate in the past two sessions -- some of that deserved, some of it the product of low-to-no public expectations. The point is, by now there's a limited amount left to say.
So what we are left with is nothing but a mind-numbing shell game. What will the House Republicans do? Who will vote for Travaglini-Finneran only to vote against it later? Who on earth has any idea who's winning? Or even what's going on?
This is a game for insiders. Every major issue at the State House, it seems, becomes a game for insiders, which is just what's wrong with this. It shuts out almost everybody.
Gay marriage, as many have asserted, is not the biggest issue of our time. Neither is it a minor distraction, as some would have us believe. It would be nice, then, if our Legislature could come to a decision, take a vote, and move on to the budget, health care, maybe education.
Instead, the legislators will indulge in just the kind of exercise that leaves voters feeling so alienated from Beacon Hill, the kind of debate that leaves only one clear sense -- that whatever happened is not really on the level.
It's easy to bash lawmakers, who, in truth, have applied themselves to this issue with uncommon diligence. It isn't anyone's fault that the gay marriage issue doesn't lend itself to the kind of split-the-difference compromise to which they are so accustomed.
But that doesn't excuse what they've adopted instead, an approach marked by constant evasion, smokescreens, and back-room deals. An issue like this, that actually affects many people's lives, deserves transparent treatment. Trust me, transparency is not what you are going to see on your television this afternoon.
It was clear at the Constitutional Convention in February that there was no majority for anything, and it was that realization that set a whole chain of bizarre events in motion. If you think bizarre is an overstatement, just consider that even as recently as yesterday people were still wondering whether Finneran actually supports the Travaglini-Finneran amendment. I think that meets anyone's standard for strange.
As a game, this is fun. As a way to make public policy, it is woefully dysfunctional.
Just once, it would be nice if people who are elected to take stands actually drew deep breaths and did just that. If they do, this constitutional convention won't take three days.
But there I go, dreaming again.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.