House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, speaks to reporters beside a map of three vacant Allegheny County legislative districts that will be the subjects of special elections next year. (Capitol-Star photo by Peter Hall)
By J.J. Abbott
Last week, Harrisburg Republicans, who suffered an overwhelming defeat at the ballot box in 2022, celebrated the election of new state House Speaker Mark Rozzi. We’ve learned in the days since that they did so not for Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, or the hope of finding bipartisan consensus but for their own cynical, purely political reasons.
Rozzi, nominated and supported by both Republicans and Democrats, ran for speaker to advance his life’s work: creating an opportunity for justice for fellow adult victims of child sexual abuse. GOP leaders calculated, instead, that Rozzi’s election to the speakership would further their own political goal of advancing a series of unrelated constitutional amendments covering partisan policy proposals that failed to garner enough support to become law through the usual channels.
In 2022, this GOP package included two election changes borne out of the GOP’s 2020 election denialism, a legislative power-grab around regulations, and a complete ban on abortion rights without any exceptions. Then Republicans lost the governor’s race, nearly all competitive federal races, and 12 House seats and their majority in the state House
The amendment allowing victims of childhood sexual abuse an extended window to sue their attackers garnered wide bipartisan support in three previous legislative sessions. However, the GOP, fresh off losing up-and-down the ticket, now seems to be threatening to withhold their support for a final vote unless they leverage it to add their hyper-partisan agenda into the state constitution, effectively holding victims of abuse hostage to conspiracies spun by former President Donald Trump.
To assuage the fears of victims and advocates and try to prevent bitter fights over unrelated policies, Gov. TomWolf – with Rozzi’s backing – called a special session to focus on getting the window to justice on the ballot by the May primary. Some thought this would help avoid partisan fights over elections and abortion amendments that lack the same urgency or consensus.
Republican leaders were incensed at the prospect of losing this leverage and immediately attacked the governor for calling the special session. Senate Republicans went as far as to say their politically-charged amendments were “equally important” as justice for these victims.
According to a report by NBC10 in Philadelphia, “House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler says there are other, more urgent things they need to prioritize ahead of child sex abuse.”
Seriously? Have they no shame?
In openly admitting they want to hold justice hostage, GOP leaders justified the need for a special session focused on the most urgent matter: justice for these victims.
In addition to no moral comparison between their partisan amendments and justice for abuse victims, there is no urgent need or policy rationale for these election and regulation changes other than the political goals of the Republican Party.
Take elections as one example.
Pennsylvania law already requires ID to vote and mandates state-run audits of every election. Voter impersonation almost never happens and audits typically find only small computation errors, if anything at all. So while nearly three-in-four Pennsylvania voters said in 2022 exit polls that they were confident PA had fair elections, GOP leaders continue to push these amendments because Republicans think they will help them win elections.
For years, Pennsylvania’s counties outlined urgently needed election policy updates. Unfortunately, in a similar act of political gamesmanship, those bipartisan, consensus changes also remain victims to GOP hostage-taking.
A much more responsible approach would be to engage in the traditional legislative process of building consensus towards some sort of comprehensive elections reform bill, instead of ramming bad policy into the constitution because you failed to pass it the right way.
GOP leaders seem ready to force their members to engage in a raw political exercise of derailing and delaying justice for abuse victims over these other amendments.
In 2018, four incumbent Republican senators lost re-election after they voted against a statutory change similar to the proposed constitutional amendment. The GOP’s latest legislating by hostage-taking creates a tough partisan pill for these members to swallow with huge political risks.
This unseemly approach is a reminder of why voters overwhelmingly rejected the GOP last election after decades of their control of Harrisburg lawmaking.
Voters are tired of business as usual in Harrisburg and clearly rejected the GOP’s extreme agenda in 2022. But Republican leaders in Harrisburg prove once again that they don’t care what the voters think.
J.J. Abbott served as press secretary and deputy press Secretary for Gov. Tom Wolf from 2015 until 2020. He now serves as executive director of Commonwealth Communications, a Pennsylvania progressive communications non-profit.
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