Both chambers of the Pennsylvania General Assembly on Tuesday side-stepped proposed rules changes that would have diminished the power of majority-party leaders to control the legislative agenda.
House and Senate Democrats had hoped to advance a series of changes, with the goal of ensuring more bills in the GOP-controlled legislature would get a vote. Under the current framework, leaders in the majority party and their chosen committee chairs schedule most votes, and many bills never receive a vote at all. Some lawmakers also complain that leadership can vastly reshape legislation by muscling through last-minute amendments.
Democrats in the House had drafted about a dozen rules changes before the General Assembly began its new session Tuesday. Their ideas included guaranteed votes for bills that reach a sufficient level of bipartisan co-sponsorship, more notice for committee votes, and greater minority party representation on committees.
Such reforms, House Democrats said in a Monday statement, promised 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 after the damage done by extremists in Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg.”
But when Republicans agreed to allow House members to participate remotely in committee and floor debates – a key concession amid the coronavirus pandemic – Democrats set aside their rules ideas, PennLive reported Tuesday. And a set of operating rules introduced by House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, a central Pennsylvania Republican, passed in a 142-54 vote. Thirty-two Democrats supported the resolution, and one Republican, Bob Brooks of Murrysville, voted against it.
In statement Tuesday, House GOP spokesperson Jason Gottesman said the rules adopted Tuesday would “streamline our processes, modernize House practices, and reflect the realities of legislating during a global pandemic.” Previously, he defended other House rules as encouraging a “deliberative” legislative process.
In the Senate, meanwhile, Majority Leader Kim Ward, a Hempfield Township Republican, stopped Democratic efforts Tuesday to change the rules she proposed, and her resolution passed in a mostly partly-line 31-18 vote.
Like House Democrats, Sens. Lindsey Williams, of West View, and Katie Muth, of southeastern Pennsylvania, had drafted a host of new rules. Among them was a measure to require votes on bills with a minimum amount of bipartisan support, and another that would allow a bill's prime sponsors to call for committee hearings and votes on their legislation.
Rather than take up those ideas Tuesday, Republicans referred them to committee.
While Williams and Muth doubted they would gain much traction in that Republican-controlled forum, they pledged in a Tuesday statement to pursue stand-alone legislation to enact new rules. Williams later said, "This is not over."