Rep. Birmingham opposed a state Senate bill that would have limited the use of public referenda to policy issues within the purview of the state legislature, reported the Boston Herald (March 28, 1929, p 1, 34).
The Senate passed the bill in response to a referendum the previous fall on whether Congress should repeal Prohibition imposed by the 18th Amendment. A majority of the public voted in favor of the referendum, which directed the state Senate to send a “memorial” to Congress seeking repeal.
Birmingham opened the debate in the House on the Senate bill, opposing the measure and arguing that the public opinion act, which authorized public referenda, had not been abused by the voters. He said the people of Massachusetts should have the right to express their views on federal as well as state matters and urged his colleagues to vote against the bill.
Arguing in favor of the Senate measure, Rep. Howard Fall of Malden said that the purpose was to prevent useless legislation, as memorials to Congress are usually ignored.
Rep. Martha N. Brooks agreed, saying that the discussion of the Senate bill should not be based on the merits of Prohibition; rather, the Senate bill was designed to prevent the situation where people voted on ineffectual referenda.
Rep. Eliot Wadsworth of Boston said that 1,200 certified signatures of registered voters are required for a referendum and that many voters are unlikely to sign up on trivial or foolish subjects. He said the people should be able to expresses their views on important questions, whether they involve the state legislature or not.
The House voted March 27 overwhelming against the Senate measure by a vote of 35 in favor and 172 against.
According to J. Joseph Huthmacher in his Massachusetts People and Politics, the referendum favoring repeal of the 18th Amendment appeared on ballots in 36 out of 40 state senatorial districts and was approved by an aggregate of 285,000 voters.
The holding of the referendum in the first place was partly a result of surging popularity in the state of Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, an Irish Catholic politician from New York who favored repeal of the 18th Amendment. Smith beat the Republican candidate Herbert Hoover, a strong supporter of Prohibition, in Massachusetts but lost the national presidential election to Hoover.