To really fix Harrisburg we need to fix the Pa. Constitution | Patrick Beaty
As Pa. House Speaker Mark Rozzi said, ‘Harrisburg is broken.’ Fixing it will require long-term solutions.
Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, speaks during a press conference at the Capitol on Monday, April 4, 2022. (Capital-Star photo by Marley Parish)
By Patrick Beaty
Last week, Pennsylvania House Speaker Mark Rozzi announced plans for a listening tour to help him and a bipartisan working group figure out how to break the logjam that has prevented the chamber from doing any business since the new legislative session began three weeks ago.
Also on the agenda are a plan to pass for the second time an amendment to the state Constitution allowing adult survivors of child sexual abuse a two-year window in which to sue their perpetrators despite expiration of the statute of limitations.
Rozzi, D-Berks, is also asking members of the public for their advice in drafting new legislative operating rules that will facilitate passage of bills with bi-partisan support.
For Rozzi, himself a former abuse victim, the temporary civil justice window is the top legislative priority. The new speaker has declared that no other legislation will pass the House until that constitutional change has been enacted.
But first the chamber must agree on how it will operate for the next two years.
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You might think a lot of the rules governing how bills get passed are already spelled out somewhere and there isn’t a lot lawmakers need to decide every other January before they start making laws again. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.
The Pennsylvania Constitution covers only the basics. Like how many votes are required to pass a bill and how many days a bill must be considered in each chamber before it gets a final vote.
Most of the details are left for each chamber to decide. And there are a ton of details governing everything from what committees will be established and how many members of each party will be on each committee, to who controls what bills get a vote by the full chamber and how the amendment process will work. And much, much more.
There are no rules in place when lawmakers are sworn in on the first Tuesday in January. None. That means the complete package of rules – from the most arcane to the most strategic – are under the control of whichever political party holds the majority.
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And that caucus will usually write rules that maximize their own ability to control the legislative process. If the leaders of the minority caucus object, they might suddenly find the final rules are even worse for their members than the original version they found undesirable.
Not happy with how many seats your party gets on a committee? That number could go even lower if there isn’t agreement on our entire rules package.
And, so it goes. Two years later, the other party may gain the majority and the rules will change again.
There have been other notable efforts to reform the rules. When former Rep. Dennis O’Brien, R-Philadelphia, was elected speaker in 2007, he pledged to reform the House rules.
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Like Rozzi, O’Brien was a compromise candidate from the minority party elected in a negotiated deal.
His Speaker’s Commission on Legislative Reform recommended 32 changes which the House adopted with amendments. Most of those reforms remain in place to this day, but there has been some erosion and backsliding when it suited the majority’s purposes. Additional reforms of any significance have been few and far between since 2007.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but it would take a constitutional change to make permanent reform possible. That’s because the Constitution authorizes each chamber to determine its own rules. And that is what allows a bare majority of one party to dominate the policy agenda for two years until the next General Assembly is elected and convened.
This is not to say that Rozzi’s work group is destined to fail. On the contrary, the rare set of circumstances leading to his election have coincided with the emergence of a vocal reform community armed with their own reform proposals.
At the heart of their agenda is the straightforward proposition that bills with bipartisan support should receive a vote in committee and on the floor of the House and Senate. This one simple change would virtually guarantee the enactment of more laws that most Pennsylvanians actually want and need.
Drafting a rule to accomplish that goal would be challenging. But even assuming a consensus can be reached on both the concept and its wording, why should such a vital contribution to the democratic process be left to the whim of future legislative majorities?
Let’s seize this moment to adopt stronger House rules. But lawmakers should also begin the process to amend the Constitution to make permanent reforms in the way both legislative chambers operate.
Lawmakers could also consider a constitutional change allowing for the enactment of general operating rules by statute. This would ensure the General Assembly is actually able to function on the first day of a new session – unlike the current situation – and ideally should also provide the same opportunity for every current and future lawmaker to be more effective on behalf of their constituents.
History has shown how hard it is to reform state government, especially in Pennsylvania. Speaker Rozzi has provided reformers with a rare opportunity to accomplish something meaningful. It would be a shame if it could too easily be undone.
Opinion contributor Patrick Beaty served more than 20 years in Pennsylvania state government in both the legislative and executive branches. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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