Will narrow margins in the Pa. House bring new rules to empower the minority party?

‘It’s not a good state of policymaking when we have 253 elected officials and it’s a relative handful that is making the policy,’ Pat Christmas, of the Committee of Seventy, said

By: - February 19, 2023 6:30 am

Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives take the oath of office on swearing-in day on Jan. 3, 2023. (Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall)

As gun violence roiled Philadelphia neighborhoods and the nation reeled in the aftermath of mass shootings at a Buffalo supermarket and Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last spring, lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House offered up a package of gun safety legislation.

The bills, which included bipartisan legislation to allow temporary, court-ordered confiscation of a person’s firearms if they’re shown to be an imminent danger to themselves or others, never made it to a vote on the House floor.

Instead, the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee stymied a maneuver by Democrats to force a vote using a last-resort procedural measure, sending the bills to another committee to die. 

A week later, Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, who once declared no gun control legislation would advance from the committee as long as he was in control, gutted another Democratic bill to prohibit possession of assault weapons by people under 21. 

Kauffman replaced the text with language to allow carrying concealed firearms without a permit, again ending the Democrats’ attempt to evade his absolute control of legislation assigned to the committee. 

The battle over gun policy is only one example of how rules in the Pennsylvania General Assembly concentrate power in the upper echelons of the majority parties, and leave those in the minority little hope of advancing legislation even when they are able to muster bipartisan support.

“It’s not a good state of policymaking when we have 253 elected officials and it’s a relative handful that is making the policy,” Pat Christmas, chief policy officer for the Philadelphia-based good government group, the Committee of Seventy, told the Capital-Star.

Democrats have pushed for changes to level the field for years. And the November election gave them a slender 102-101 majority in the House for the first time in more than a decade. 

House Republicans, faced with the reality that bipartisanship will be essential to advancing their agenda, now support rules reform that would give the minority party a fighting chance to advance legislation.

When the House convened on swearing-in day on Jan. 3, neither party appeared to have the votes to elect a speaker. House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, won bipartisan support for his surprise election by vowing to lead the House as an independent. 

Although he may have burned political capital among Republican supporters by not changing his registration to “no affiliation,” Rozzi is leading a group of three Republicans and three Democrats to gather input from Pennsylvania residents on what the new House operating rules should look like.

“With the margins so tight and with a speaker who has self-declared his independence from the partisanship that is out there … we have a far better chance this time than we have had in many years,” Christmas said.

Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, who is a member of Rozzi’s Working Group to Move Pennsylvania Forward, said both parties are reflecting on the rules more because of uncertainty about what the next two years will bring. 

“I think we’ve got an unusual situation where the majority [and] minority will likely ping-pong back and forth over the next two years,” Schemel said. “In the past, a single resignation has not affected the majority.”

The House entered the new session last month in a quandary over which party had claim to the majority.

 While Democrats won 102 of the 203 legislative districts in November, one incumbent, Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Allegheny, died weeks before the election but was reelected anyway, and two others, Reps. Austin Davis and Summer Lee, both also Allegheny County Democrats, resigned after winning election to higher offices.

Rozzi adjourned the chamber on Jan. 3 after declaring an impasse over the rules and scheduled it to return after special elections on Feb. 7 in Allegheny County for the three vacant seats. 

Additional resignations are possible later this year, since  at least two Democrats are seeking nominations to run for higher office in the May primary.

For now, the House is set to return to session on Tuesday with Democrats holding a one-vote majority after sweeping the special elections.

Rozzi has said his first order of business will be to hold a vote on a constitutional amendment to provide legal relief for adult victims of childhood sexual abuse by creating an opportunity for them to sue their abusers. The statute of limitations currently prevents many victims from suing because their claims are too old. 

‘Rozzi rules’

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, on Wednesday renewed criticism of Rozzi, saying that he had hijacked the chamber and held Pennsylvanians hostage by refusing to do any other legislative business until the survivors’ amendment passes. 

“The speaker claims he’s trying to break gridlock in Harrisburg … It’s the speaker who’s refusing to share his ‘Rozzi rules’ with the public and begin to work in the chamber,” Cutler said, noting that the amendment has passed once already with broad bipartisan support. 

The state Constitution requires amendments to be passed in consecutive sessions of the General Assembly before being put before the voters in a statewide referendum.

Cutler said the Republican rules proposal has been public since swearing-in day and includes changes to improve minority involvement and resolve problems with the discharge resolution process. A discharge resolution allows lawmakers to force a bill out of a committee for a vote, but under existing rules it is easily defeated by amending the bill or referring it to another committee.

It would also change the makeup of committees to include 13 majority and 12 minority members instead of the 15-10 split under the old rules.

‘Honest conversations’

Democratic House leaders didn’t respond to a request for comment, but spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said the Democratic caucus has advocated for changes in the House operating rules for years.

“While the caucus awaits the outcome of Speaker Rozzi’s Workgroup to Move Pennsylvania Forward, our leaders continue to discuss potential rules changes and meet with stakeholders to ensure that when the House reconvenes, we’re prepared to enact fair rules to govern the chamber,” Reigelman said in a statement.

Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, is also a member of the working group and said the panel’s priority has been to create a set of rules for the special session. Other members of the group include Reps. Morgan Cephas, D-Philadelphia.; Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny; Valorie Gaydos, R-Allegheny; and Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery.

“This is a bipartisan group of legislators having honest conversations about the operation of the house and the culture of the house where political theater seems to trump policy considerations,” Schweyer said.

The group is also charged with producing a report to synthesize the information it received from constituents in a series of public hearings around the state, where residents were invited to speak about what they want from the General Assembly.

Schweyer said the process has been meaningful and has forced lawmakers to have frank and open conversations with each other. 

“I don’t think my Republican colleagues had any idea what it was like to have a good idea and have no chance of seeing it move forward,” Schweyer said.

There’s a strong desire to return to normalcy among the rank-and-file members of the House and frustration over the obstinacy of leaders with regard to control of the chamber, Schweyer said. 

He added that it was disingenuous of Republicans to claim control knowing that they would not have a majority after the special elections. Schweyer questioned what would happen the next time a representative in a staunchly Democratic district resigns.

“Are we going into limbo again?” Schweyer asked. “We don’t want to be changing offices. We don’t want to be changing letterhead. We want a level of stability and we genuinely hope the Republicans want that too.”

Carol Kuniholm, chairperson of the legislative redistricting reform group Fair Districts PA, said the hearings were marked by the sadness, heartache and fury of sexual abuse victims over the statute of limitations amendment. 

The House missed a January deadline for the amendment to appear on the May 16 primary election ballots for voter approval. And the Senate bundled the amendment with proposals on voter identification and election audits, which will further complicate its approval. Conservative lawmakers in the Senate have vowed not to let the survivors’ amendment pass without the other proposals. Rozzi has said he intends to pass it as a standalone amendment.

Reflections from reformers

But Kuniholm said the group also heard from other constituencies who said their legislative priorities haven’t advanced. They included firefighters struggling with financial and staffing shortfalls, school boards and educators calling for charter and cyber-charter school reform, residents of rural counties who need broadband internet access, and people who need health insurance coverage for telemedicine. 

Some attributed the inability to advance legislation on certain subjects to the undue influence of money, Kuniholm said.

“Lobbyists get heard, voters don’t get heard,” Kuniholm said.

Michael Pollack, executive director of the reform group March on Harrisburg, said new rules need to restrict the power of committee chairs to bottle up legislation on ideological or purely partisan grounds. 

“What if a bill is very popular? It should be able to get a vote. It shouldn’t be able to be stopped by the committee chair,” Pollack said.

Pollack pointed to the 2018 redistricting reform bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton, to amend the state Constitution to create a nonpartisan citizens’ commission to draw congressional and state legislaive district lines. 

Despite having 110 cosponsors, then-House State Government Committee Chairperson Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, and the 14 other Republican committee members sidestepped Samuelson’s efforts to force a vote by rewriting the bill completely.

When the majority kills a popular bill in committee, Pollack said, it allows the rest of the caucus to hide behind the committee’s actions.

“The rules allow for a complete lack of responsibility and accountability because they just never have to go on the record,” Pollack said.

Pollock said the new rules should recognize bipartisanship by requiring bills that pass one chamber with the support of both parties to be guaranteed a vote in the other chamber. 

Pennsylvania lawmakers should look to other states for ideas to give minority members and backbenchers more clout, such as allowing each member to fast-track one bill per session.

Christmas said speakers at the working group’s hearings suggested other ways of fostering bipartisanship and strengthening relationships across the aisle. One involved the idea of eliminating the literal aisle between parties in the chamber by arranging lawmakers’ desks by alphabetical order or district numbers.

“If you mix people up they will have more genuine opportunities to engage with each other and that can have a significant impact on the process,” Christmas said.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.