Commentary

The legislative leadership shuffles in Harrisburg and D.C: Will they matter? | Fletcher McClellan

Yes, the changes were historic. Will they result in changes in governance? That’s an open question

January 18, 2023 6:30 am
Pennsylvania Capitol Building. May 24, 2022. Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg, for the Capital-Star).

Pennsylvania Capitol Building on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).

Historic leadership struggles are taking place in Congress and the Pennsylvania state Legislature. Whether they amount to consequential changes in how we are governed in the next two years remains to be seen.  

Republicans assumed control of the U.S. House of Representatives with a narrow majority. It took a week and 15 ballots for them to elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif,. as House speaker. Not since 1859 (!) had the lower chamber taken as long to choose a Speaker.

With just one seat separating the majority and minority parties in the Pennsylvania State House, Rep. Mark Rozzi of Berks County, an elected Democrat for six terms, was chosen as Speaker. Emerging from a surprise, last-minute deal, Rozzi declared he would not caucus with either Democrats or Republicans and would serve instead as an independent.

In their first official act, McCarthy and the GOP passed a resolution canceling budget increases for the Internal Revenue Service. Needing the consent of President Biden and the Senate Democratic majority, it is very unlikely the bill will become law.

The biggest issue on the horizon for Congress is a necessary vote on raising the federal debt ceiling, so that the U.S. can continue to borrow from investors to finance budget deficits. Republicans have threatened to withhold support for the bill unless Biden and Democrats agree to major cuts in government spending. 

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According to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, if prolonged deadlock causes the federal government to default on its obligations, it could mean “irreparable harm to the U.S. economy, the livelihoods of all Americans and global financial stability.”

Meanwhile in Harrisburg, business in the House of Representatives is on hold because of disagreement over proposed amendments to the state constitution.

Gov. Tom Wolf, who left office on Tuesday, called a special session of the Legislature to consider an amendment creating a two-year window in which victims of child sexual abuse can sue for damages, no matter when the abuse occurred. This is an issue important to House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who is a child sexual abuse survivor. 

Republicans, who control the state Senate, want to tie the child abuse lawsuit measure to constitutional amendments they adopted last session to require voter ID every time a person votes and to make it easier for the legislature to veto proposed regulations.

Opposing the GOP amendments, which if the House approves could go on the ballot in May, Democrats want separate votes on all three proposals.

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Accused of bad faith by some Republicans, who believe Rozzi does not intend to honor his pledge of independence, the Speaker appointed a special bipartisan committee to resolve the amendments dispute and suspended House legislative activities indefinitely. 

Complicating matters further are scheduled special elections in Allegheny County to fill three vacant House seats on February 7. If the Democrats win all three elections, as expected, they will be on the brink of becoming the House majority party for the first time since 2010.

That depends, of course, on how truly independent Speaker Rozzi intends to be and what kind of agenda he wants to push. As it stands now, Rozzi is a man without a country. 

Back in the nation’s capital, McCarthy’s authority is nearly as tenuous as that of Rozzi’s. According to rules dictated by the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, any single member of the House of Representatives – a disgruntled Republican, even a Democrat – can move to vacate the chair, i.e., remove the Speaker.

That’s a mighty thin tightrope McCarthy has to walk. 

Unlike Rozzi, however, the Republican leader has an ideologically cohesive caucus behind (or in front of) him. Very probably, they will pass symbolic bills, such as abolishing the IRS. So too, will the House majority conduct endless investigations of the Biden administration and the “deep state,” and concoct pseudo-issues such as the imminent removal of gas stoves from American kitchens.

In other words, Republicans in Congress feel little responsibility to govern. Which means two years of posturing, hostage-taking, and gridlock in Washington.

More of the same is possible in Harrisburg, except there are some reasons for hope.

The chaos in the House of Representatives gives newly sworn-in Gov. Josh Shapiro an opportunity to fill the leadership vacuum. In the next few weeks we will see where Shapiro wants to take the Commonwealth and how he wants to do it. 

Judging from Shapiro’s inaugural message of unity, the composition of his transition teams and Cabinet, and plump budget surpluses, the chances for bipartisan cooperation are maybe not 100%, but better than zero.

Who knows? Maybe the new governor, who as attorney general led the grand jury investigation of sexual predation in Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic dioceses, and the new House speaker will become the strongest of allies.

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Fletcher McClellan
Fletcher McClellan

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.

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