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HARRISBURG — Two months into an impasse-riddled session, the members of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives have passed the rules that will allow the chamber to function.
Taking center stage in the debate were changes to state House rules governing recourse for victims of sexual harassment.
Previous chamber rules had allowed only state House members and employees to file harassment complaints with the chamber’s ethics committee. That left the many other people who often interact with lawmakers in their official business, like lobbyists and advocates, with few options.
The rules adopted Wednesday, written by former Speaker Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), prohibit state House members from sexually harassing “any individual” while the member is performing their official duties, on state House property, or at a state House-sponsored meeting or event.
Expanding that provision was key for Andi Perez, an SEIU lobbyist who recently accused a sitting state House member — later identified as Mike Zabel (D., Delaware) — of harassment. She said she was unable to make an ethics complaint under previous rules.
Zabel has yet to respond to the allegations.
During a floor debate on the rules Wednesday, several Republicans argued that the new harassment procedures weren’t strong enough. State Rep. Kristin Marcell (R., Bucks) called the language “unfortunate muddying of the waters.”
They pushed for language offered last session by state Rep. Kate Klunk (R., York),. Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) later said he thinks Democrats’ new rules may not be expansive enough to cover, for instance, the harassment Zabel is accused of.
The floor debate culminated in Cutler saying he was in “receipt of a news article” that publicly named Zabel, and asking if McClinton was aware of it.
Speaker Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) abruptly ended rules debate and called a vote on the measure. It passed on party lines, with 102 Democratic votes.
Having rules in place allows the state House to finally form committees and begin passing bills to the floor for consideration. Previously, the chamber had only been able to pass legislation in special session, which limits action to one bill and requires only temporary rules.
Lawmakers passed the official rules a day after Rozzi stepped down as speaker and state House Democrats unanimously picked McClinton to fill the role.
What’s in the new rules?
Along with updates to harassment recourse, the rules make several substantial changes to state House operations.
They make committees smaller, and give the minority party relatively more representation — from a 15-10 split in the majority’s favor to a 12-9 split. Republicans argued that the difference should be even smaller because the overall chamber is divided by just one vote; state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) called it a “compromise.”
The new rules also curb committee chairs’ ability to unilaterally sink legislation.
There has long been a mechanism in chamber rules known as a discharge resolution that in theory allows members to sign a petition asking a bill to be released from committee against the will of the chair. The legislation then would be subject to approval from the full state House. But the old mechanism was easy to circumvent because chairs could simply reassign the unwanted bill to a different committee and keep the discharge resolution from a floor vote indefinitely.
The new rules make two key changes to discharge resolutions. First, they increase the number of members required to sign a discharge resolution from 25 to 50, and add a new requirement that the group be bipartisan, with 25 Republicans and 25 Democrats. Republicans complained this setup lessens the minority’s ability to use discharge petitions.
The changes also get rid of procedural waiting periods that previously allowed bills subject to discharge petitions to be shuffled away into other committees; Democrats say they are now much likelier to get a vote by the full state House.
The new rules also change the process for passing constitutional amendments.
Amendments must now have at least one hearing before being considered by the full state House. Additionally, members can no longer bundle multiple unrelated constitutional amendments into a single measure, as Republicans have repeatedly done in recent years in an effort to quickly pass the measures. And the amendments can now only be considered by voters in a statewide referendum in November elections, which tend to have higher turnouts than midterms.
The rules also give members of the minority party a new right to call at least one testifier to committee hearings. They also allow remote voting; members will now be able to designate their caucus whip to vote for them on any bill, and any member voting by designation will be counted as present for the purposes of a quorum.
The rules create a new position for a diversity and inclusion officer, who will work with an existing equal opportunity officer and a designated committee of members on state House personnel practices, procurement, and general operations. These officers and their committee will now be responsible for issuing a report with recommendations at the end of each session.
Other topics that were under discussion during rules debates remain the same. A GOP-imposed ban on new vehicle leases for members, for instance, is staying in place, and committee chairs will still be chosen based on seniority.
Partisan growing pains
While the new rules make some significant changes to previous sessions’ operating procedures, they also preserve much of the majority party’s substantial power over the chamber.
That power, which Democrats now hold after a dozen years in the minority, was on full display as the state House began debating the rules Wednesday and Democrats offered a resolution to ban amendments to their rules package.
Republicans had offered the same resolution two years ago, when they were in the majority. This time around, Republicans argued against it, with one Republican reading back Democrats’ unhappy comments from two years ago.
Democrats now using Republicans’ old tactics, argued state Rep. Paul Schemel (R., Franklin), is in “contravention of everything that we heard during [Rozzi’s] listening tour of what Pennsylvanians want to see, which is that new dawn that was promised to us yesterday.”
Democrats largely ignored those complaints, arguing that these rules are fairer to the minority than Republicans’ rules ever were.
Rozzi, who has been one of the Democrats’ more prominent voices in favor of bipartisan changes to rules, and who sponsored the new package, called the updates a “set of good-government, fair rules that, actually, the minority should truly enjoy,” in an interview with Spotlight PA.
He thinks any complaints from Republicans are disingenuous.
“I’m so sick of hearing [Republicans] saying that, ‘Oh, well, now that we’re in the minority, we need good-government rules, and we’re going to do things this way,” Rozzi said. “Well, where was that the last 12 years when you’ve been shoving down all kinds of horrible rules down the Democrats’ mouths?”
This story has been corrected to clarify that signatures from 25 members were required in order to file a discharge petition under the previous House rules.
Spotlight PA’s Stephen Caruso contributed reporting.
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