Pennsylvania runs the most expensive full-time Legislature in the nation that produces the fewest bills, according to redistricting advocates, because the rules remain rigged against bipartisanship and ultimately, the constituents they represent.
Fair Districts PA, a nonpartisan statewide coalition that promotes a more transparent redistricting process, said party leaders and committee chairs rule the General Assembly’s legislative agenda with an iron fist, leaving many broadly supported bills on the shelf collecting dust.
“We are increasingly becoming a country of moderates governed by the extreme,” said FDPA’s Tony Crocamo during a webinar about legislative rules hosted Wednesday. “We pay more and we are getting less. Unless this changes, nothing changes”
FDPA research shows nine in 10 bills introduced into the General Assembly “go nowhere” and of those considered, 85 percent come from members of the majority party. Crocamo said the existing rules give party leaders “complete control over the agenda and the process.”
“If the committee chair doesn’t want a bill to go anywhere, it doesn’t,” he said. “Also the majority leader or the (House) speaker can derail it. They can rule on a whim with a fist of iron. They can do it because they don’t like the legislator who introduced it. They can do it because they don’t like the policy or because they have donors who don’t like it.”
Many rank and file legislators – new and old – agree. Allegheny County Democratic Rep. Sara Innamorato, first elected in 2018, said it’s not for lack of trying that proposals with bipartisan interest never get committee hearings or votes. Instead, majority chairmen and party leaders block a bill’s movement if it doesn’t fit into their agenda.
“There’s no lack of energy or good ideas in that chamber; that potential is capped by the way the institution is structured,” she said. “And right now, it’s not very democratic.”
A solution Innamorato and other lawmakers have proposed includes requiring a vote on any bill with 102 or more co-sponsors in the House and 26 or more in the Senate. A stronger discharge process would also rescue popular bills stuck in committee and bring them to the chamber floor for action.
“If a bill gets 102 co-sponsors, then it should be run,” said Rep. Wendi Thomas, R-Richboro. “I really still feel that way.”
Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Natrona Heights, said enforcing time limits for amending bills and voting on final passage would prevent many legislators from feeling remorseful after adopting a measure with unintended consequences.
Act 77 of 2019, the law that expanded mail-in voting to all residents, is one such example she said.
“That bill was an amendment,” she said. “It was a 90 some page amendment, and it didn’t have the opportunity to get a good review. That’s why you are seeing a lot of litigation now. There’s a lot of sloppy drafting, and there wasn’t an opportunity for it to get worked through.”
Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Easton, said lawmakers did address many of these issues after the Legislature’s infamous pay raise scandal in 2005 that sparked a wave of reform candidates who took office in the following election. Some rule changes included limiting voting sessions to the hours of 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. – this, after legislators adopted their own pay raise after 2 a.m. – and instituting a 24-hour time lapse between amended bills and final consideration.
But over time, Freeman said, many of these reforms “have been eroded.”
“We need to ensure that bills with strong bipartisan support should be required to be brought up in committee and have a vote,” he said. “If it’s a good proposal, it deserves to get a hearing and it deserves to get a vote and that’s how we should operate.”
Montgomery County Republican Rep. Todd Stephens pushed back against assertions that rank and file legislators lack any agency to bring up measures on the chamber floor through special orders and motions – unpopular as they may be with party leaders – and said despite the roadblocks in committee, the House passed nearly 700 bills in the 2019-20 session that ended Monday.
“I want to make sure we don’t overstate the issue,” he said. “There’s no question that we can improve our rules and we can make the Legislature more responsive and we can make sure the members of the Legislature have a voice … but there are motions where the majority leader doesn’t have the end all be all control.”
Stephens admitted that institutional pressure may prevent many rank and file legislators from acting independently of their party for fear of retribution. Each party uses its own IT departments and print shops, he said, and staffing budgets vary among lawmakers. Some may fear party leaders will cut off access to resources if they vote the wrong way, though Stephens said he’s never received any such threat himself.
“To me, there ought to be more uniformity that would eliminate the concerns about what leadership can and cannot do to pressure you on a vote,” he said. “There is an institutional pressure to vote certain ways. I can see how others may feel pressured, particularly if you haven’t been around a long time.”