Rules Reform

In the PA legislature, good bills with strong public support rarely move out of committee or receive a final vote. Our experience and research have made it clear that Gerrymandering + Unfair Rules = Dead End for Reforms.

What are “the rules”?

On the first day of every session, both chambers in the General Assembly vote for procedural rules. These rules shape their work for each two-year cycle. The rules decide who can schedule bills, choose committee chairs and members, hire staff and more.

Who makes “the rules”?;

The rules are not in the constitution or in law. They are decided by majority leaders and put all the legislative power in the hands of leaders and committee chairs.

When are “rules” made?;

On the first day of each session a vote is pushed through – quickly. Rank and file legislators are pressured to vote rules into place, sometimes without even reading them. While they could be changed at any time, that rarely happens.

Why does it matter?

Lopsided priorities:

Current rules let one person elected by a few thousand voters in one district block priorities supported by millions of voters across the state.

No transparency:

Current rules mean decisions about bills are made behind closed doors, with no transparency and no hope of accountability.

Limited Representation:

When they vote on the rules, legislators surrender control to a few party leaders. That limits the ability of our legislators to represent us. Most legislators have no say in what happens. As a result, voters have no voice.

Little bipartisan collaboration:

The rules allow the majority party to ignore the minority party completely. Decisions are made without minority input and often without public hearings, expert testimony or genuine debate.

Good bills don’t get a vote:

Important bills with lots of support never get a vote. The PA General Assembly passes less than 7% of bills introduced each session. The cost per bill passed is far higher than most other states. Solutions promised in campaign speeches, session after session, never get a vote.

The result is a full-time legislature that enacts far fewer bills than even most part-time legislatures and that is consistently unresponsive to bills with strong public support.

We expect real representation. #ReformtheRules

It doesn’t have to be this way!

Pennsylvania has pressing problems that demand bipartisan collaboration and real solutions. We can no longer afford to have reasonable legislation die in committee session after session.

It’s time for new rules that ensure good bills with broad support are given a vote. And it’s time to make sure legislators from all parts of the state and across the political spectrum have a meaningful role in deciding what bills get a vote.

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Background research

Read our Stories of Dysfunction blog posts

The Sometime Governments

In the early 1970s, the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures, predecessor to the National Council of State Legislatures, undertook extensive research that yielded “The Sometime Governments,” a ground-breaking report still considered an important reference in any examination of state governments. Many important recommendations made in that report have transformed other state legislatures, but are not in place here in Pennsylvania.

Some recommendations from this book

Collaborative Policymaking

A more recent report describes the way control of the legislative agenda can open the door to collaborative policymaking or fuel partisan gridlock and destructive division. PA has much to learn from Best Practices for Collaborative Policymaking: Learning from Power-Sharing Arrangements in State Legislatures.

The authors of that report also provide data on “agenda fairness.” By their assessment, PA rates a 0%, indicating that only the priorities of majority party leaders can advance through committees and on to final vote.

Recommended best practices

Assessing state legislatures

The National Council of State Legislatures offers a final helpful source for assessment of our state legislature, What State Legislatures Need Now. Some criteria suggest areas where the PA Legislature does well (constituent service, oversight of executive actions), while others point to glaring dysfunction and the need for immediate remedy.