Advocates ask for rewrite of Pa. Legislature’s rules to prioritize bipartisan bills
House GOP leadership said the call for reform came from ‘participation trophy liberals’
Carol Kuniholm, of the reform group, Fair Districts PA, speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol on Wednesday, 3/30/22 (Capital-Star Photo by Stephen Caruso).
*This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. 3/30/21 with additional comment from House Democrats.
Every other January, on the very first day of the new legislative session, the Pennsylvania House and Senate approve the rules that will govern how the chambers debate and pass bills for the next two years.
While it’s a far-reaching decision, it is normally uncontroversial. But now, good government advocates are banding together to make Harrisburg’s next batch of 253 legislators — which could include a wave of new faces — think twice before they rubber stamp those rules in the new session that starts in 2023.
“There’s the possibility of new legislators coming in who don’t understand how things work,” Fair Districts PA Executive Director Carol Kuniholm told the Capital-Star. “Your first vote, you’ll be giving away your right to represent us. Vote no, and demand our better procedures.”
This isn’t Kuniholm’s first foray into the seemingly mundane world of legislative procedure. In the late 2010’s, she and her organization, which wanted to pass redistricting reform, zeroed in on the subject as a key blockade to action.
Under the House and Senate’s current rules, the legislative majority, now Republicans, hold much of the power in Harrisburg. Committee chairs, whose only qualification is seniority, can treat their panel as a fiefdom, blocking all policies they oppose, no matter how many legislators back it.
Then, on the floor, the majority leader sets the voting calendar at their discretion based upon what they think has the support of the majority of their fellow party members.
In effect, this means that the opposition of a small group of key legislators can block a bill that may have a bipartisan consensus.
Kuniholm and other groups argued that this has contributed to a recent lull in legislative productivity.
About one-in-five laws enacted since the current session opened in 2021 named bridges or roads, a Capital-Star analysis found. That’s the highest percentage in a decade.
But what fixes Kuniholm wants is unclear. In the past, Fair Districts has pointed to specific rule changes, such as automatic committee votes for bills with a set number of sponsors from both parties. But Wednesday, she was less specific.
“Whatever rule we propose, they’re gonna find a way around it,” Kuniholm said. Her plea was simple: Bipartisan solutions get a vote.
That could cover a number of issues, including a ban on lobbyists’ gifts to legislators, time for counties to count mail-in ballots before Election Day, and a permanent legal framework for telehealth care, all of which have lingered on lawmakers’ agenda.
A temporary patch for the latter issue is working its way through the General Assembly. Lawmakers are poised this week to extend the pandemic waivers on telemedicine for a third time for a number of regulations approved during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Were the Legislature to eventually stop approving the waivers, then mental health care for millions of people, from out-of-state college students to chemotherapy patients, would be at risk, Johanna Byrd, executive director for the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said Wednesday.
“We have been unable to identify even one person who opposes this bill,” Byrd said, but said that “partisan struggles” get in the way of a permanent fix.
In the past, action on telemedicine has been held up because anti-abortion lawmakers in the House have demanded the bill include a provision banning doctors from remotely prescribing f abortion-inducing medications.
In 2020, they succeeded in adding the measure, and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed the bill.
Still, the legislative wheel spinning led Byrd to back Kuniholm’s effort to “Fix Harrisburg.”
However, the pitch wasn’t well received. In an email, House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman said that Kuniholm and the other reformers were “participation trophy liberals” who “don’t like the fact that they have lost the game, so they are trying to cheat by changing the rules.”
Additionally, Gottesman argued that metrics such as co-sponsorship, which Kuniholm and others point to as proof of bipartisan support, is “fake,” while defending the plodding pace of lawmaking.
“Legislative volume does not equate to legislative quality,” Gottesman said. “Good ideas typically garner broad support, not just at the top of the paper, but in committee and on the floor.”
Legislative Democrats were more on board. In an email, Brittany Crampsie, spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said that he “has supported this kind of reform for years.”
She included a list of suggested rule changes in the upper chamber, including mandating committee votes on all bills referred to a committee, increasing the threshold to suspend rules for last-minute votes and meetings, and more transparency on internal bill analyses.
In an email, House Democratic spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said that the minority party deserves to have a voice in the chamber.
“Too many good ideas that would help the people of Pennsylvania left languishing in committee despite having broad public support,” she added. “The majority party should not be averse to a fair debate on proposals introduced by the minority party and should be standing on the side of the people rather than practicing extreme partisanship.”
In the meantime, Kuniholm said her group, which whipped up grassroots interest in redistricting, would now turn its attention to explaining Harrisburg’s rules to the general public, through meetings and other advocacy.
“There’s lots of people who have advocated things for years and have not had any progress,” Kuniholm said. “We’re going to be saying there’s a reason. Let us explain to you” why.
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