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Politics & Government

Pennsylvania’s Legislative Leaders Wield Extraordinary Power, And The Audit Fight Proves It

harrisburg_capitol_.jpg
Amy Sisk
/
90.5 WESA

It’s a throwback to the hardball politics of the Capitol’s past: a powerful legislative leader stripping one of his colleagues of staff, committee assignments — and, ultimately, status.

The ongoing story of the explosive yet still mysterious feud between Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) and state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) over how to conduct a forensic audit of last year’s election in Pennsylvania has been making headlines nationally since it burst into public view last week.

But underlying that story is a lesser-known one about far-reaching powers that come with being in one of the top legislative leadership posts in Pennsylvania.

At the start of every session, legislators in the Democratic and Republican caucuses in both chambers gather behind closed doors to elect a slate of leaders. In doing so, rank-and-file lawmakers hand them the reins to the millions of dollars that the legislature gets to spend every year — and all the perks that flow from there.

If a lawmaker wants to hire someone to staff their Capitol office, they have to get the blessing of their caucus leaders. If they want a specific committee assignment, more money to operate their district offices, or to work with an outside spokesperson, consultant, or lawyer? They have to run it up the ladder.

And though any representative or senator can author legislation, it’s the leaders who ultimately decide which legislative committees to assign bills to and whether to bring them up for a floor vote.

”The legislature is a feudal system,” said Eric Epstein, co-founder of the nonpartisan good-government group Rock the Capital. “Caucus leaders are powerful despots who lord over the rank-and-file like serfs on the manor.”

Epstein joked, “Most legislators can’t go to the bathroom without permission.”

In the Senate Republican caucus, where Corman holds the top leadership post, staffers who work in the Capitol — including those assigned to individual legislators — officially work for the caucus, and can be yanked and reassigned at the top leader’s whim.

That is what happened last week when Corman took away Mastriano’s staff. Corman also removed Mastriano from his chairmanship of the legislative committee that was pursuing the forensic audit. Corman gave few details about his decision, saying only that Mastriano was “more concerned with grandstanding,” and had failed to get the job done.

Though Mastriano and his supporters cried foul — countering that it was Corman who had tried to obstruct the audit work at every turn — he ultimately had little recourse.

It was a power move that hasn’t been seen in more than 15 years. According to interviews with current and former legislators and staffers, those types of actions were far more common in the 1980s and 1990s — and were almost always perceived as punitive.

One of the last times it happened was in 2005, during a politically volatile time in the Capitol. The legislature had just approved a controversial legislative pay raise in the middle of the night.

In the politically tumultuous days that followed, the House’s then-Democratic leader, Bill DeWeese, removed 15 members from committee leadership posts who had voted against the pay raise — a move widely viewed at the time as punishment for not falling in line with leadership.

WESA partners with Spotlight PA, a collaborative, reader-funded newsroom producing accountability journalism for all of Pennsylvania. More at spotlightpa.org