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Why Isn’t The PA Legislature More Productive? Some Say Unfair Rules Hold Lawmakers Back

Lindsay Lazarski
The Pennsylvania General Assembly convenes for its next two-year session Tuesday, Jan. 5.

Most bills proposed in the Pennsylvania legislature never get a vote, but some lawmakers want to change that in the new legislative session, which begins Tuesday.

Each two-year session starts with votes on procedural rules — a topic that surely strikes some as boring but that has garnered increased attention as Democrats search for ways to grow their influence in the GOP-controlled state House and Senate. The rules, after all, determine which bills are voted on — and which aren't.

For the most part, those decisions are made by leaders in the majority party and the legislators they choose to chair each committee. Critics note that even if a bill has strong bipartisan support, it can die in committee if the chair opposes it. Other times, bills can be radically changed with last-minute amendments.

State Senator Lindsey Williams, a West View Democrat, hopes to change the process.

“Early on, I started seeing how the rules were set up to silence and to push things through so quickly,” Williams remembered of her early days in the Senate, where she has served since 2019. “That is really not a good way to make legislation.”

Williams said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa has been negotiating with his Republican counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, over the rules in advance of the new session. But if the resulting legislation does not reflect her party’s priorities, Williams said, she and state Sen. Katie Muth, a southeastern Pennsylvania Democrat, will either try to amend the rules on the Senate floor or wait to propose changes later in the session as separate resolutions.

One of the rules Williams and Muth have considered introducing would require votes for bills that receive a minimum amount of support from both parties. Another would allow senators to call committee hearings and votes on bills for which they’re the prime sponsor. A 2015 report by FairVote and the Bipartisan Policy Center notes that states elsewhere in the country go even further by requiring committee votes on every bill — and then automatically scheduling floor votes on legislation that makes it out of committee.

Senate Republicans did not respond to requests for comment, but GOP spokesperson Jason Gottesman said House leadership is open to discussing rules changes.

Gottesman said Republican leaders consult with members of both parties as they draft rules legislation. “There is a long process by which members submit proposed changes,” he said. “It's not like there isn't a way for people to voice their opinion and offer rule changes.”

But he said the current rules ensure lawmakers have enough time to study legislation and gather input from experts.

“To sort of circumvent that process really circumvents the deliberative nature of what happens,” he said. “Some really good pieces of legislation take several sessions before they're ready to be passed.”

Legislative rules usually pass with no controversy on the first day of a new session. But if lawmakers choose to debate them, Gottesman said, the chamber will operate under the previous session’s rules until new ones are approved.

Williams noted that Pennsylvania’s existing framework puts the minority party at a steep disadvantage. In the last session, for example, only 37 bills sponsored by House or Senate Democrats received a floor vote in the Senate, according to data compiled by Senate Democratic caucus staffers and provided by Williams. Republicans, the data show, received Senate floor votes on 411 pieces of legislation.

The government watchdog group Fair District PA reports that 85 percent of bills that become law are introduced by GOP members.

The governor currently signing and vetoing bills, Tom Wolf, is a Democrat. So legislation that has passed in recent years has done so with help from members of both parties. But the rules even hurt bills with broad bipartisan support, Fair Districts contends. As examples, the group cites a lack of action on proposals to expand access to broadband, remediate lead contamination, and overhaul the political redistricting process.

Of the roughly 9,500 bills introduced between 2013 and 2016, Fair Districts also finds, just 6 percent became law. The average state legislature passed one quarter of proposals between 2013 and 2014, according to an analysis by CQ Roll Call.

Gottesman, the Republican spokesperson, doubted that such data lends itself to “an apples to apples comparison” between states. But Tony Crocamo, a member of Fair Districts' Advocacy team, said Pennsylvania’s legislative rules stand out for concentrating too much power within the hands of majority party leaders.

“Nothing went to a vote without their say-so, without their permission,” he said, speaking during a virtual town hall in December. “And they often point the finger at each other: ‘Well you know, if it gets out of committee, I think we could have a vote on it.’ And that’s just a way for them to duck responsibility.”

“Legislation they support gets passed. Legislation they’re not interested in, despite what the public may want, [doesn’t] get any action,” Crocamo said.

Some have suggested adopting temporary rules on the first day of the session and letting a special bipartisan committee devise new permanent procedures. Former House member Gene DiGirolamo, a Bucks County Republican, proposed that idea in 2019, but that reform itself never made it out of committee. And the GOP’s Gottesman dismissed the proposal as “trying to circumvent the rules by creating new rules to circumvent those rules.”

During Fair Districts’ December town hall, Montgomery County Rep. Todd Stephens, a Republican, noted that 96 percent of the 670 bills that passed the state House last session had bipartisan support. Sixty-five percent, he said, passed unanimously.

“I want to make sure that we don’t overstate the issue,” Stephens said. But he added, “There’s no question that we can improve our rules and that we can make the legislature more responsive, and we can make sure the members of the legislature have a voice.”

Stephens suggested that lawmakers could challenge institutional norms that might stop lawmakers from exercising power they already have. He acknowledged that some worry they could experience retribution from leadership if, for example, they were to call for a vote to bring a bill held up in committee to the House floor.

Democratic House member Christopher Rabb, of Philadelphia, countered that those concerns are based in reality. “There are repercussions if you don’t get in line,” Rabb said. As an example, he said, legislators who buck the leader’s wishes could be denied money to hire more staffers.

Rabb noted also that many bills that receive a full House vote include symbolic or uncontroversial resolutions, explaining why a high percentage garner support from both parties. “They are not the substantive bills that a lot of folks care about most deeply as it relates to impacting people’s lives,” he said.

Legislation aimed at increasing police accountability offers a case in point, Rabb continued. He noted that, of nearly 20 bills that sought to address the issue, none had gained any traction until a group of Black legislators staged a protest on the state House floor in June. The demonstration occurred amid nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“A handful of us, most of whom were pretty new to the legislature, got two bills enacted into law within 36 days because we did a nonviolent, direct action on the House floor,” Rabb said. “And [the legislature] hadn’t done anything on those issues for at least 36 years, or 360 years, around police accountability and police terror.”