In search of bipartisanship, lawmakers work to trim the fat in Pa. House

(Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Sixteen Pennsylvania House legislators announced this week that they were forming a bipartisan group to build relationships between ideologically distant lawmakers and reform how the lower chamber works.

The group was started in the aftermath of the 2020 election by Rep. Jared Solomon, D-Philadelphia, and Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Dauphin. 

Known as the “PA One Caucus,” they’ll push for institutional reforms and rules changes in the House, they said at a Wednesday press conference.

“We need to move forward with bipartisan work,” Mehaffie said. 

The membership mostly hails from the eastern half of the state, defies easy ideological descriptions, and, speaking broadly, are new faces to the General Assembly — most have only served two or three terms in the House.

Reforming the chamber’s rules has been a long time goal of good government activists. And it has, at times, gained steam in the building. 

More than a decade ago, reformists leveraged a standoff for the speakership to force through rules changes that restricted late night votes and gave lawmakers more time to read through bills. 

Since then, most pushes for change have fallen flat — though the Republican majority has recently made some small changes to allow for remote voting amid the pandemic.

In a letter sent to legislative leaders last month, the caucus asked for Republicans and Democrats to consider merging many administrative services of the House that are currently delivered by both parties.

In current House practice, such managerial musts as IT, printing, bulk purchasing, human resources and messenger services are split between the Republican and Democratic caucuses.

The reform minded lawmakers suggest providing all of the above in a nonpartisan fashion as an institution, rather than siloed into partisan bubbles.

Human resources responsibilities would slide in under the duties of the House Clerk, the chamber’s nonpartisan manager who administers House office space, cuts paychecks and holds onto bills and vote tallies.

Final say on hiring decisions would stay within the individual caucuses, but separating HR could encourage those experiencing workplace harassment to come forward, the caucus argued in its letter.

The caucus also suggested that the House and Senate merge their individual security forces — which are separate still from the Capitol Police, who are under the auspices of the governor in the Department of General Services.

The lawmakers did not have an estimate for the total cost savings their suggestions would garner, but estimated it would become clear in the span of years.

Lawmakers and lobbyists have privately complained for the past few years of the increasingly combative tone in the General Assembly, one that some have argued gets in the way of dealmaking.

“I have to honestly confess I was not an early adopter of the idea,” Rep. Dan Williams, D-Chester, a caucus member, said.

That blunt assessment earned a nervous laugh from his colleagues. Williams continued: “Political polarization has become a defining moment and feature of our politics. But I have discovered that collegiality is essential for any workplace, and that is no less true of life here in the state Capitol.”

The strife of a global pandemic and the 2020 election only increased those partisan tensions, as lawmakers battled over mask-wearing and Republican attempts to use legislative powers to question or outright overturn Pennsylvania election results.

While this new caucus can claim ideological diversity, just one of its Republican members, Rep. Jesse Topper, of Bedford County, signed onto a December 2020 letter asking Congress to dispute the results of that year’s election. He also sponsored an audit of the election results that passed the House, but was defeated for final approval in a bipartisan research committee.

With audit rejected, lawmakers shift focus to future changes to Pa.’s election code

Topper acknowledged it was a “divisive time” after the election. But he argued that debating difficult issues was part of the job, and that lawmakers needed to bond over their lives outside of politics. 

Solomon also pushed back on the notion that Topper’s efforts should exclude him and other Republicans from all future cooperation with Democrats.

“I don’t know … what is the alternative?” Solomon asked. “Certainly, we can all just turn inwards, hunker down, embrace our ideological differences, go on Facebook, post a lot, yell at the other side, rally our own team.”

“And it does feel good,” Solomon continued. But it would go against his constituents’ demand for compromise and action, he added.

As of right now the group’s goal is to focus on its administrative proposals, before moving on to weighter policy proposals that elicit greater political passion.

But it’s also an open question if they can accomplish their modest starting goal.

Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, told the Capital-Star that Benninghoff was interested in looking at their proposal. Republicans are interested in government reform, and are not “blind to the fact that also includes getting our own house in order.”

But he did not offer a whole endorsement of the plan, instead deferred to the committee process.

House Democratic leadership, meanwhile, declined to comment through a spokesperson. 

A House Democratic source who requested anonymity to discuss internal matters said that partisan suspicions would likely torpedo the proposal the first time a newly nonpartisan staff person, originally hired by one party, messes up a lawmaker from the other party’s newsletter, for instance.

“Paranoia is strong at times in that building,” the source said, referring to the Capitol. 

A full list of caucus members is below:

  • Rep. Jared Solomon, D-Philadelphia
  • Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Dauphin
  • Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-Montgomery
  • Rep. Pam DeLissio, D-Philadelphia
  • Rep. Steve Malagari, D-Montgomery
  • Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Washington
  • Rep. Chris Quinn, R-Delaware
  • Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia
  • Rep. Christina Sappey, D-Chester
  • Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-Northumberland
  • Rep. Meghan Schroeder, R-Bucks
  • Rep. Melissa Shusterman, D-Chester
  • Rep. Wendi Thomas, R-Bucks
  • Rep. Kathleen Tomlinson, R-Bucks
  • Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford
  • Rep. Dan Williams, D-Chester