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Untying the political strings that bind lawmakers to Speaker McGee

It is the well-being of vital government - rather than the clash of strong personalities and ambitions - that should be getting attention in the current confrontation over the speakership of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

The real issue is not whether Speaker Thomas W. McGee (D) of Lynn, Rep. George Keverian (D) of Everett, or somebody else is at the rostrum come January 1985. It is whether there is to be a lot less legislative string-pulling.

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A substantial number of representatives undoubtedly would like a change in the House leadership, but some of them are reluctant to push out Mr. McGee. Instead they prefer to lessen the speaker's authority - or that of any gavel-wielder - to run the show much as he sees fit.

It is uncertain, however, whether there is enough support within the House for the type of changes needed to open up the legislative process and give rank-and-file members more say in decisionmaking.

For obvious reasons, McGee wants no part of anything that might weaken the power structure that carried him to the top - and has kept him there for the past 8 1/2 years.

Yet, if he is to retain the speakership when his current term expires next year, McGee may have no choice but to get behind, or at least accept, some House rules modifications that would weaken his political grip.

Lawmaker support for some type of a rules change was hardly lessened Oct. 25 when McGee fired Mr. Keverian, his majority floor leader, and Rep. Charles F. Flaherty (D) of Cambridge, Taxation Committee chairman.

The speaker understandably was less than thrilled with the prospects of a challenge from Keverian for the House reins some 15 months hence. But the Everett lawmaker, who has served loyally on McGee's team since mid-1975, certainly has a right to try to move up without being punished. McGee already has held the top legislative post longer than anyone in Massachusetts history.

As majority floor leader, Keverian was in line to reach for the speakership and, as a man of considerable popularity among his colleagues, he has long been regarded as McGee's heir-apparent.

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His demotion to the status of a regular state representative clearly has not diminished his aspiration to the speakership. It has, however, moved him out of a position of some authority and prominence. More important, it means a $22,500 -a-year salary cut - from $52,500 to $30,000 - and a much smaller legislative staff.

McGee's action also placed another legislative leader, Rep. John E. Murphy Jr. (D) of Peabody, on the second-highest rung on the House ladder, just behind the speaker.

Thus, if McGee eventually should decide to give up the gavel during the next year, Keverian could find himself parrying for the speakership with Mr. Murphy, a man who also is well liked by his colleagues. McGee could hardly have overlooked that possibility for thwarting Keverian's ambition.

Keverian's friends, disappointed as they might be about the firing, had almost no chance of using it as an excuse to oust the speaker. The most they could hope for was to somewhat embarrass the man who fired Keverian. And they may well have done that; 26 representatives voted ''yes'' to vacate the speakership and another 35 voted ''present.'' Thus, at least 61 House members - 35 Democrats and 26 Republicans - chose not to publicly oppose the ''dump McGee'' effort.

In all, 95 representatives, including the speaker himself, teamed up to assure McGee would retain the the power that goes with the gavel. But at least two-thirds of this backing came from committee chairmen, vice-chairmen, or others who hold leadership posts that would have been jeopardized had they voted otherwise.

Having witnessed what happened to taxation chairman Flaherty for supporting Keverian's campaign, others with choice House niches (many involving at least a 50 percent extra pay) could hardly have been expected to side with those trying to topple Speaker McGee.

Whether McGee can count on this measure of loyalty in January 1985 is questionable, especially if House rules have been changed to reduce the number of political carrots and sticks in the hands of the speaker.

Despite his success in fending off the Oct. 26 challenge, McGee failed to escape a political battering: he is the first speaker in decades to face such a vote in midterm. Not since January 1963, when a band of dissidents including the Democratic Gov. Endicott Peabody sought to topple Speaker John F. Thompson, has there been an attempt to replace a House chieftain. That move also failed.

But Mr. Thompson - known to his critics as ''the Iron Duke'' for the manner in which he ran the House, including gaveling through legislation with the microphone turned off - voluntarily stepped down less than two years later. Although the comparison between the Thompson regime and the McGee reign is murky , the potential for the misrule of the early 1960s remains.

That is why, no matter who is speaker, changes in legislative rules to prevent one-man control in either chamber make sense.

If nothing else, the removal of Keverian and Flaherty from McGee's team for their audacity to exercise a bit of long-overdue independence could provide renewed impetus to an in-House drive for reform.

The two victims of the speaker's purge, no longer bound by ties of loyalty to the Lynn Democrat, now are free to contribute their considerable talents to the cause of a more democratically run legislature.

But as well-intentioned and determined as the growing band of state representatives may be, any changes they bring about in operations would in no way affect the Senate, where similar reforms clearly are needed.

For this reason, whatever improvements Keverian House-supporters are able to make cannot substitute for more sweeping changes embraced in the initiative petition now being circulated for voter signatures throughout the state.

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