A Historic Week in Harrisburg: New Speaker, New House Rules

In a short but historic week, PA house members elected a new speaker and approved new House rules with significant changes.

On Tuesday, February 28, the House convened for a regular session for the first time since January 3. Speaker Mark Rozzi reflected on the outcome of his Listening Tour and on the special session to address childhood sexual abuse that was held during the previous week. In his comments, Rozzi described the ways in which Harrisburg is broken and his work for better rules, then announced his resignation as speaker.

Immediately following Rozzi’s resignation, Representative Malcolm Kenyatta nominated Majority Leader Joanna McClinton as speaker. She was voted into office by a strict party line vote of 102D to 100R, then ushered to the podium by the women of her caucus. After accepting the gavel from Rep. Rozzi, she affirmed the need for change in the PA House:

“I am confident that we can collaborate. We don’t have to criticize. I am confident that we can debate. We don’t have to disparage each other. I am confident that we can replace our short-sighted political games with sincere and productive cooperation. This body can and will do better.”

Following that historic event, the Democratic caucus convened to discuss the proposed changes to past House rules. At the close of that lengthy members-only meeting, the Rozzi proposal was revised for further discussion the following morning. On Wednesday, March 1, both parties gathered in their caucus rooms to discuss the draft proposal. At 11 am, they gaveled in to session while changes were still being finalized and put onto the General Assembly website.

The first motion of the day was House Resolution 9, a motion to block amendment of the forthcoming rules proposal. Despite strong objections, that motion passed on a party line vote of 102 D to 100 R.

The debate on House Resolution 1, the rules themselves, had little substance, focusing on just a few aspects of those rules. When debate ended, Speaker McClinton put the motion to a vote. The resolution passed on the same party line vote, 102D to 100 R.

While Republicans decried the inability to amend the rules resolution, House Resolution 9 mirrored the same procedure used in past sessions. And while they complained of the inability to see the proposal until the day of the vote, that also mirrored the minority party experience of past sessions.

On the process:

As proponents of better rules and better process, Fair Districts PA celebrated and participated in Speaker Rozzi’s Listening Tour and Working Group to Move Pennsylvania Forward. We appreciate that Rep. Rozzi and the Working Group did their best to incorporate much of what they heard into proposed rule changes.

We appreciate that Minority Leader Bryan Cutler made his own proposal public two days before the rules vote took place, and were pleased to see that some of his proposals and concerns were incorporated into HR 1.

We also appreciate that the Democratic caucus had real discussion of the Rozzi proposal, and that Democratic leadership allowed and considered substantive input from rank and file members. While caucus meetings are always secret, we know that most legislators have rarely had a say in the rules that govern their daily work.

However, we regret that that process did not take place sooner so HR 1 could be shared at least 24 hours before the vote, so the public could review it and legislators could prepare amendments. We also oppose the continued use of the “no amendment” resolution that preceded discussion and vote. We hope for a day when the House dynamic has improved so that consideration of reasonable amendments could be possible.

On the rules themselves:

We asked that the rules provide an avenue forward for bills with bipartisan support and that the misuse of constitutional amendments be addressed. Those requests were met.

Discharge petition.

The new rules require a minimum of 50 votes (at least 25 from each party) in order to have a bill released from committee (the previous threshold was 25 votes). The new rules also remove the option to amend a bill or move it to another committee prior to the discharge vote. With this change, bills with strong bipartisan support can be moved out of committee without being gutted. This one change now gives rank and file legislators the power to prevent committee chairs from blocking bills with bipartisan support; and the new rule is consistent with our request that a bill with 20 cosponsors from each party be designated as a priority bill.

Special order of business.

The new rules provide for a special order of business action through which a bill that is supported by a majority of members can be moved to a floor vote on the next voting day, even if the Speaker or majority leader wants to block it. This change addresses our concern that bills with bipartisan support receive a vote on the floor.

Constitutional amendments.

Under the new rules, constitutional amendments can only address one subject, must have a public hearing before second consideration, and cannot be put on the ballot in a primary election. These are significant improvements that demonstrate a respect for voters; and they are already being put into effect as the House continues work on bills to address childhood sexual abuse.

Prohibitions of discrimination and harassment.

Another significant improvement: prohibitions of discrimination or harassment of any kind, including clearly defined sexual harassment, covering not only legislators and staff but any individual performing services or duties of the House, in or on House designated offices, property or facilities, or at a House-sponsored meeting or event.

Redistricting legislation.

One small but important change of interest to anyone who has followed PA redistricting closely:

“No bill proposing the redistricting of congressional districts shall be reported by any committee to the House, nor shall an amendment making substantive changes be offered on the floor of the House, unless such bill or amendment is accompanied by a map showing the proposed congressional districts. Any such bill or amendment, along with the accompanying map, shall be posted by the Legislative Data Processing Center on a publicly accessible Internet website of the General Assembly.”

This rule will bring more transparency into the congressional redistricting process and will prevent redistricting legislation that, until the final vote, defines “congressional district x as composed of a portion of this Commonwealth”.

While there is still much work to do in both chambers to ensure a better legislative process, we celebrate the improvements. We appreciate that voters were heard and look forward to seeing how the new rules impact legislative outcomes in the session ahead.

Read more here:

Penn Capital Star: PA House elects Joanna McClinton as the first black woman to serve as speaker

Spotlight PA: New Pa. House rules expand who can file a sexual harassment complaint against lawmakers