The real losers in the fight over the Pa. House are the voters | Ray E. Landis

Democrats don’t have a majority because the math doesn’t work. But it might yet

December 18, 2022 6:30 am

The floor of the Pa. House of Representatives (Capital-Star photo).

The 2021-22 session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly provided ample evidence Republican majorities were more interested in consolidating power and pandering to their corporate and fanatical supporters than responding to the needs of the majority of Pennsylvanians. The beginning of the 2023-24 session may offer more of the same – only this time Democrats will share part of the blame.

From efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election to attempts to suppress voter turnout to setting the stage to restrict abortion to dubiously impeaching a duly elected local official, Republicans pursued an extreme agenda over the past two years.

In response, on Nov. 8, Pennsylvania voters elected the Democratic candidate in 102 legislative districts, while choosing the Republican candidate in 101 districts. But an unfortunate death, plus two legislators moving on to other offices, have jeopardized Democratic control of the state House.

The majority party sets the agenda of a legislative body. The majority appoints committee chairs and determines what bills come to the floor for a vote.

Provided all elected representatives of a political party vote together, a one vote margin is enough to give a party power far beyond their narrow majority. And it is why the situation of majority control of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has rapidly deteriorated into an all-out food-fight level battle between Democrats and Republicans.

The details of the dispute between House Democrats and Republicans have been well documented.  In the end, Democrats claim they should control the state House, as they had more Representatives elected on Election Day. Republicans believe they have control because they will have a majority when all eligible Representatives are sworn in on Jan. 3.

House Republicans call for special elections in Democratic strongholds on primary day

Adding to the intrigue is should Republicans have control of the House in January they are likely to force a vote to place a number of controversial constitutional amendments on the May primary ballot, meeting the requirement that Constitutional Amendments be passed in two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly.

Such an action would be an attempt to impose Republican priorities on Pennsylvanians by banking on more of their voters turning out for an off-year primary, thus making a mockery of the democratic process.

Republican disdain for the checks and balances of government combined with the election results have convinced Democrats they are justified in asserting their right to assume power in the state House when the body reconvenes on January 3.

Unfortunately for the many Pennsylvanians who have been left behind by Republican priorities, Democrats are simply wrong. And the most infuriating thing about this is it is the arrogance of Democratic officeholders which has put Pennsylvania in this situation.

The death of Rep. Tony DeLuca, D-Allegheny, in October was a sad end to a long legislative career. It was also ill-timed, as it was impossible to replace him on the November ballot and his posthumous victory gave Democrats a one-seat majority in the House. 

A 101-101 tie on January 3 would likely have resulted in some sort of power-sharing agreement until a special election could take place. But Democrats forfeited that option.

The fight over control of the Pa. House is Harrisburg high-stakes lunacy at its worst

A flaw in Pennsylvania election law allows individuals to run for two political offices at the same time. State Reps. Austin Davis and Summer Lee, both Democrats of Allegheny County, chose to take this step and appeared on the May primary ballot twice.

Their primaries for lieutenant governor and U.S. House were contested, but both prevailed.

They then chose to not withdraw from their state House races and remained on the fall ballot, where they were elected to both offices, necessitating their resignation as state representatives. That means on January 3, 101 Republican representatives will be sworn in, but only 99 Democrats will take their oaths.

The claim Democrats have the majority because more Democrats were elected in November is absurd. We do not elect political parties on election day – we elect individuals. And two of the individuals elected on November 8, who could have chosen to only run for one office, instead decided to remain as candidates for two positions.

The Democratic candidates may win all three seats in special elections early in 2023 which will give Democrats the majority in the state House. But no one should assume they know the will of voters before an election takes place. 

The prospect of Republicans pushing constitutional amendments regarding abortion and voting rights on to the May primary ballot is a threat to the rights of many Pennsylvanians.

But Democrats attempting to claim a majority in the state House with two fewer members than Republicans after having candidates run for multiple offices at the same time also defies democratic principles. Two wrongs cannot make a right – but as usual, it is likely to be Pennsylvania voters, not their elected officials, who suffer from the wrongs.

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Ray Landis
Ray Landis

A former spokesman for the Pennsylvania AARP, Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.