The Pa. House is getting ready to consider critical chamber rules. Here’s what you need to know.
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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania House Speaker Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) says he will introduce chamber rules this week that would give Republicans more power to set the legislative agenda, even though they are now the minority party.
Such changes have long been supported by Democrats — who spent 12 years in the minority before flipping the chamber last year — and good-government groups as a way to ensure all 203 state House lawmakers have a voice in the process and can push meaningful policy changes.
But as a vote approaches, a handful of Democrats, many of whom struggled to advance their bills under GOP control in Harrisburg, have expressed doubt to Spotlight PA about giving Republicans significant means to influence the next two years of legislating.
Party leaders, meanwhile, have declined to elaborate on the kind of rules they will support.
Under rules in previous legislative sessions, the majority party has held near-total control over which bills advance in the chamber and which ones die without consideration. That has blocked many Democratic priorities like raising the minimum wage and passing LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections.
State Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware), first elected in 1992, has criticized how the chamber operates and backed a change that would let every lawmaker pick one bill a session that is guaranteed a floor vote.
But speaking to Spotlight PA last week, he said he would not support significant changes to last session’s rules, in order to ensure that Democrats can advance their policy agenda without obstruction.
“This is different than I would talk as a newly minted freshman, but 30 years have seasoned me, and I understand that this is about governing,” Vitali said.
Democrats currently hold a one-member majority in the state House, meaning even a single defection has the potential to sink a rules proposal that lacks bipartisan support.
Normally, lawmakers approve these operating rules on the first day of a new two-year session, with little debate.
But instead of calling a vote on the rules in January, Rozzi recessed the chamber. He then convened a six-person group to develop compromise rules and to “hear directly from our citizenry on how they think the House can best move forward and heal the divides that exist due to the hyper-partisan politics of Harrisburg.”
Rozzi declined to make the exact language of his rules proposal available last week, but his office did summarize some of the proposed changes in a news release.
Among them: making it easier to force votes on legislation in committees or on the floor, giving the minority party more representation on committees, and expanding sexual harassment and discrimination protections. (The latter have increased relevance after a lobbyist told Rozzi’s work group earlier this month that an unnamed, sitting lawmaker harassed her. Under previous rules, she was unable to file a complaint.)
“I think the rules that we’re introducing are going to be revolutionary,” Rozzi said Friday.
State House Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have largely declined to publicly discuss specifics of the rules. They deflected questions last week by saying they were focused on a special session Rozzi convened to consider bills that would provide relief to survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
In a statement, state House Democratic spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said that the caucus applauds Rozzi’s “thoughtfulness and leadership in soliciting public feedback on crafting better operating rules,” and noted the party’s “persistent advocacy” for better rules.
“Now as the Majority party in the state House, we look forward to approving House rules that will create a more equitable institution,” she said.
In January, Republican leaders released a rules proposal that included a number of changes that would give the minority more power to control the agenda. These include a 13-12 committee divide instead of last session’s 15-10 divide, an easier process for forcing bills out of committee, and the online posting of legislative expenses.
All are changes to policies that benefited Republicans when they controlled the chamber, and that Republicans rejected out of hand when Democrats or good-government advocates previously proposed them.
House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) recently criticized the rules that the Democratic majority passed during last week’s special session. Those temporary rules raised the threshold to amend a bill from a simple majority to two-thirds support and limited speakers to five minutes.
“If this is the template that the Democrats are going to use when we return to regular session, I think that that speaks volumes about what their priorities are,” Cutler said at a news conference last week.
Among Democrats who want to keep the old rules, a common denominator was a desire to use their majority to advance their own, long-blockaded policy priorities.
At stake in the rules, argued Vitali, is the future of action on climate change, school funding, reproductive health, gun laws, and more.
“This is Harrisburg, it’s not Plato’s Republic,” he added.
But other Democrats have expressed a desire to be magnanimous in victory and let the new Republican minority retain some power.
“Neither party should be putting their knee on the neck of the other party,” said state Rep. Mary Isaacson (D., Philadelphia), a longtime Capitol staffer before her election in 2018.
Spotlight PA reporter Kate Huangpu contributed reporting.
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