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The Capitol

Frustrated by the Pa. legislature? How obscure rules kill reforms and fuel partisan gridlock

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Lawmakers from both parties and the anti-gerrymandering group Fair Districts PA want the rules adopted in 2021 to emphasize collaboration, rather than partisan politics.
KALIM BHATTI / The Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — It looked like Rep. Steve Samuelson’s proposal had a bright future.

In 2017, he co-authored a joint resolution to turn over legislative redistricting power to ordinary people, rather than lawmakers. At its peak, the measure had 110 co-sponsors, he said, including dozens of Republicans — more than enough support to pass the House.

But instead of getting a floor vote, the measure languished in committee for months, as Samuelson pleaded with the panel’s chair, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), to bring it up for a vote.

With time running out, the Northampton County Democrat in 2018 attempted a last-ditch parliamentary move called a discharge resolution to release the proposal from committee.

Instead, Metcalfe called up the measure and gutted it with support from the other 14 Republicans.

How does an idea that has majority support never get a vote? In Pennsylvania, the answer lies in ordinary operating procedures that lawmakers in the House and Senate vote to approve at the beginning of each two-year session. That will happen this Tuesday after lawmakers in both chambers are sworn in.

The rules put much of the power in the hands of the majority party, including Republican committee chairs and caucus leaders, which Democrats and good-government groups said effectively stifles the voices of many Pennsylvanians.

After years of rollbacks to bipartisan parliamentary reforms adopted when Democrats controlled the House, lawmakers from both parties and the anti-gerrymandering group Fair Districts PA want the rules adopted in 2021 to emphasize collaboration, rather than partisan politics.

“You can have a framework which is more inclusive, which allows the rank-and-file members to have a greater impact in the process, and which is, for want of a better word, less arbitrary,” said Rep. Robert Freeman (D., Northampton). “Or you can have rules that put a tremendous amount of power in the hands of leaders and chairman, and as a result can be an impediment — a serious impediment — to advancing good, strong, bipartisan legislation.”

What are the rules and what do they do?

The operating procedures of the state House and Senate are governed by dozens of pages of rules members vote on at the beginning of each new session, every two years.

The rules lay out how members can debate, which legislative expenses can be reimbursed, and how a bill can be placed on a calendar or called for a vote, among other significant details.

“The rules are one of those things that oftentimes are perceived as insider baseball, but they really do have a major impact on what policies get considered and voted on,” said Freeman, who has served in the legislature for decades.

Bills must successfully pass out of a committee before getting a full floor vote in the House or Senate. Each committee has its own rules, written by a Republican chair, who also determines the committee’s agenda.

Using this power, Democrats in leadership, as well as some rank-and-file Republicans, told Spotlight PA that committee chairs often refuse to bring up proposals.

Only once a bill is voted out of committee can it be placed on the calendar for a full floor vote, per the rules. To take that step, a bill must gain favor with one of two powerful Republicans. In the Senate, those decisions are made by Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland). In the House, Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) decides which bills are called for a vote, a process his spokesperson characterized as “thoughtful, informed, and intentionally driven.”

“There could be any number of factors” as to why “a bill runs before another one that has waited longer,” Jason Gottesman, the spokesperson, said. “The same could be true for a bill that does not get considered on the House floor. It all depends on the bill and the numerous factors and influences affecting it.”

Why are the rules controversial?

In both chambers, the rules are written by Republican leadership and usually passed on the first day of session. In previous years, GOP leaders in the House have moved resolutions making the rules unamendable after they pass.

Democratic lawmakers and some rank-and-file Republicans said bills that have wide, bipartisan support sometimes never get a vote because powerful legislators manipulate the rules to kill measures they oppose, fueling intense partisanship.

Samuelson, for example, tried using a discharge resolution to get his bipartisan redistricting measure out of the House State Government Committee. It’s a four-day process that involves gathering signatures from members, but in this case Metcalfe, the panel’s chair, intervened by calling up the proposal and gutting it with amendments.

“The bill was changed 180 degrees,” Samuelson said. “It would have actually made gerrymandering worse.”

Once a bill does reach the full House or Senate, lawmakers only have a small window to review changes. In the House, members are guaranteed just three hours to analyze recently amended, significant bills.

For years, a House rule gave lawmakers at least 24 hours to review bills that had been amended before taking a final vote. The timeframe was chosen by a 2007 bipartisan committee that offered commonsense solutions, according to Freeman, who was a member of the group.

The Speaker’s Reform Commission met after House Democrats, in the majority at the time, elected Rep. Dennis O’Brien, a moderate Philadelphia Republican, as speaker.

Slowly, that 24-hour wait period has been eroded to just three hours, House lawmakers said, a timeframe that does not allow them to review potential consequences of policies they are unfamiliar with.

There are similar issues in the Senate, where lawmakers are given at least six hours to review amended bills.

Sen. Lindsey Williams (D., Allegheny) said she’s made it a “rule” for herself to vote “no” on bills or amendments she has not been able to read at least a day before.

“That doesn’t give me any time to read it, understand it, engage with constituents, engage with stakeholders that it may be an issue to,” she said. “There is no time to educate yourself about what you’re voting on.”

“Being a senator,” Williams said, “you get more in the weeds and you really understand how the rules can be used to hide things from the public.”

Another issue, according to House members and advocates, is a lack of proportional representation in powerful committees. In the House, 15 Republicans are assigned to most committees alongside 10 Democrats — making it nearly impossible for the minority party to advance bills, they said.

Samuelson said last session, Democrats represented 46% of House districts, yet held only 40% of committee seats.

“If the voters say they would like 54% of the House members to be Republican, why would the Republicans have 60% of the committee seats?” Samuelson said. “It just makes no logical sense.”

Will the rules change?

Update: On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate and House adopted new rules along partisan lines.

House and Senate lawmakers will be sworn in for a new session Tuesday and will then debate the rules.

In the Senate, Democrats were prepared to offer amendments but, according to Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), Republican leadership “rejected them outright and threatened us with more draconian rules if we offered our proposals as amendments.”

A spokesperson for Ward called Costa’s claim “simply untrue.”

“They have rights to offer amendments, and we indicated that our members do as well,” the spokesperson, Rob Ritson, said. “It’s reckless for the Senate Democrats to suggest that any of our members would propose a rule change that violates a statutory act.”

In the House, a group of Democrats plan to introduce 10 amendments “to reduce the impact of partisan politics, make sure ideas with broad public support get a fair hearing, and restore the people’s faith in government,” according to a Monday news release.

But whether these reforms will even be considered is unclear.

Freeman said Tuesday Democrats still plan to offer amendments. “However, it is anticipated that the House Republican Leader will offer a resolution that will prohibit any amendments to the resolution that will adopt the Rules for the 2021-22 session,” he said. “It is a ploy that they have used in the past to block debate and any proposed amendments to the proposed rules.”

The House Republican caucus on Tuesday said in a tweet the proposed rules “reflect the input of Democrats, Committee Chairs, and rank-and-file members and were compiled in a deliberative process that ensures good government and adopts current practices into formalized rule.”

“The #PAHouse will swiftly move to consider these rules today to allow the chamber to form committees and begin operating more effectively,” another tweet read.

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