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HARRISBURG — Rabbi Michael Pollack stood at a podium in the Capitol, just steps away from where the legislature meets, to talk last week about the need for banning elected officials from accepting gifts from lobbyists, special interests, and others.
“Bribery is legal,” Pollack told good-government advocates and others who had gathered for his news conference. “Everybody’s on the take.”
It wasn’t Pollack’s first time delivering this message.
His advocacy group, MarchOnHarrisburg, has been pushing lawmakers to enact a gift ban for six years. A majority of legislators have promised Pollack they would vote for it, he said, and when a bill that would ban gifts made it out of committee in this legislative session, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives seemed like they were finally ready to pass it.
And then, nothing.
A gift ban is just one of many procedural changes advocates have called for the legislature to pass. Pennsylvania has comparatively lax laws on lobbying, campaign finance, revolving door policies, and more.
But no matter how many advocates call for the policies to be tightened, or how many bills are introduced, or how many legislators pledge to vote for them, the proposals have historically failed to reach either the state House or Senate floor for a vote.
Often, they haven’t even received a hearing in the legislature.
Pollack argued that the legislature, swayed by donors and leadership, lacks the political will to rid itself of the perks of being in elected office.
“There are a handful [of lawmakers] that will make the case for why corruption is OK,” Pollack said. “But most of them will vote for it.”
The gift ban
Under Pennsylvania law, elected officials are allowed to accept gifts — for some, even cash — from lobbyists and others as long as they disclose them in annual reports.
That places Pennsylvania in a minority of states with few or no restrictions on gifts, according to a nationwide analysis of gift laws by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
During Wednesday’s news conference, Pollack said lawmakers have introduced 33 gift ban bills over the past 20 years. But no bill banning or even limiting gifts from lobbyists or others trying to influence public policy has received a floor vote.
Pollack said gift ban legislation has gained some momentum in the current two-year legislative session. A gift ban bill made it out of the House State Government Committee — only the second time it has gone that far in the past two decades.
The gift ban bill currently being considered in the state House would cap the amount of money lawmakers can receive from lobbyists at $250 and would bar lobbyists from providing lawmakers with transportation, lodging, and entertainment.
Pollack said the bill is imperfect. For instance, it would ban gifts for “non-governmental use,” but does not define what “non-governmental use” entails, which could create a loophole for lobbyists. But his group has set aside these issues and hopes to address them in the state Senate if the bill passes through the state House.
Pennsylvania has some of the most permissive campaign finance laws in the country. There are no limits on how much money donors can give candidates.
Nor are there any defined restrictions on how candidates can spend that money, or requirements that they document what they use it for. For instance, candidates often use credit cards or gift cards to make purchases and then reimburse themselves with campaign funds without providing a description or explanation of what they spent the money on. An investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA found that candidates have shielded millions of dollars of expenditures with these methods.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) has introduced legislation in multiple sessions that would clarify how candidates spend campaign dollars. His bill also would prohibit personal use of campaign funds, and create first-ever limits on campaign donations in the state.
In Pennsylvania, legislators are reimbursed tens of thousands of dollars each year for food and lodging anytime they travel more than 50 miles from their home district — including when they come to the Capitol to vote.
The flat payments (which can run as high as $200) are called per diems. And legislators can cash in on them without even providing receipts.
Per diems for lawmakers have long been controversial but became even more so during the pandemic. From March 2020 through December of that year, legislators requested $726,877 in per diem reimbursements despite being allowed to attend votes remotely, with individual lawmakers receiving as much as $24,000, a Spotlight PA investigation found.
Susan Gobreski, board director for government policy for the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, said per diems currently function like “an ATM machine” for lawmakers.
State Sen. Jim Brewster (D., Allegheny) has introduced legislation that would ban per diem pay for lawmakers in four different legislative sessions. But his bills have never received a vote.
A package of bills to reform lobbying seemed likely to pass earlier this year, but like the gift ban, it stalled.
Among other changes, the package of bills would ban lobbyists from also working as consultants for political campaigns.
The bills were championed by Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) and House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), but they have yet to be brought to a vote since being announced last summer.
Cutler’s spokesperson, Mike Straub, said he hopes negotiations on the package will progress in the next month, when lawmakers will also be working overtime to approve a state budget.
“Budget negotiations often inspire some movement on other topics,” Straub said.
Rules of operation
In Pennsylvania, the majority party — and in particular, its legislative leaders and committee chairs — have tremendous sway and power.
Much of that power is codified in the chambers’ rules of operation, which legislators vote on at the beginning of every session. Advocates and lawmakers in the minority have continuously criticized those rules for being un-democratic, stifling debate, and promoting inaction.
For instance, they permit leaders and committee chairs to block a bill, regardless of its level of support, so it never receives a hearing in committee or reaches the floor for a vote — even if the bill otherwise enjoys broad support in the chamber.
Gobreski said the rules of the legislature stunt good-government proposals by making it easy for lawmakers to benefit from publicly opposing corruption while avoiding the drawbacks of actually limiting the practice.
“Leaders have a lot of control, and legislators can introduce legislation that makes them look good,” Gobreski said, “but then nobody has to take any responsibility for [it] passing. Leaders can stop the passage if they want to, and then members don’t get mad at them for cutting off the perk.”
Pollock said there are other procedural ways leadership and donors maintain power over rank-and-file lawmakers in their party.
Party leadership can remove lawmakers as sponsors from bills, kick them off of committees, and ostracize them socially.
“They can fire your staff,” said Pollack. “If you step out of line, if you cause trouble, if you make waves, leadership can just say, ‘Well, your office is no longer there. Good luck getting things done.’”
At Wednesday’s news conference, MarchOnHarrisburg called on representatives who support the gift ban to employ a legislative maneuver to bypass state House leadership and bring the bill to the floor.
This procedure would take 102 votes, Pollack said, and was last used successfully in 1921.
But it would require political courage, he said, and he believes that most lawmakers are “too afraid to stand up” to leadership.
Christina Baker is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association. Learn more about the program. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.