Dysfunction by Design Town Hall

How PA State House Rules Game the System, Silence Debate, and Damage Democracy.

With over 1000 people registering for this event FDPA welcomed some 550 to the virtual Town Hall consisting of an educational program: Dysfunction by Design: How PA State House Rules Game the System, Silence Debate, and Damage Democracy presented by FDPA Advocacy Team Member, Tony Crocamo. The program highlighted the impact of procedural rules on legislative effectiveness and inefficiency. Crocamo explained how good bills with broad public support year after year rarely move out of committee and when they do, never get a vote on the floor of one or both chambers in the General Assembly.

The twenty-minute presentation was followed by a panel of current legislators striving to represent constituents as they navigate house and senate rules.

Senator Lindsey Williams (D, Allegheny, SD 38) shared that the rules have hampered her ability to represent or even update her constituents on the status of bills of interest to them. It is not uncommon for committee meetings to be called to discuss complex bills on short notice. Sometimes senators have less than an hour’s notice, making it impossible to carefully read, understand, and consider the bill;s’ effect. PA citizens, according to Williams, need to get involved in order to create the leverage needed to empower legislators to reform the rules.

Rep. Wendi Thomas (R, Bucks, HD 178) said that most legislators work hard to represent their constituents, but the rules can get in the way. She indicated she would like to see the House put a committee together to explore rules changes that would make the chamber more transparent and accountable. With thousands of bills proposed each year, she said, there was no way the legislature could consider every bill but believes bills with support from the majority of rank-and-file members should be guaranteed a vote.

Rep. Sara Innamorato (D, Allegheny, HD 21) said democracy does not begin and end at the ballot box; it requires citizen involvement. She finds that conversations with members supposedly on the other side of the aisle often reveal that she and they share common values and priorities. There is no lack of good intentions or good ideas in the legislature, but the potential for good is capped by the way the institution is structured. Right now, she said, there is not a very democratic process in place. Democracy should thrive outside Harrisburg and within the halls of the state capitol. The lack of better rules results in the erosion of public trust and contributes to polarization and the frustration the public has with state government.

Rep. Todd Stephens (R, Montgomery, HD 151) reminded attendees that in 2019-20 the legislature passed 670 bills, 96% of which he described as bipartisan, and 65% of which he said were unanimous. He stressed that he wasn’t elected to represent a political party; he was elected to represent his constituents. While bills can get stuck, he pointed out that there are some mechanisms in place to “call up bills” once they are voted out of committee. He would like to see discharge petition provisions strengthened to provide a more effective avenue to move when a committee chair refuses to consider them.

Rep. Robert Freeman (D, Northampton, HD 136) discussed attempts to improve the house rules over the past decades, including requiring more advance notice for bills and amendments and requiring important bills be discussed at a reasonable hour, not after 11 p.m. He believes the rules should create greater transparency and accountability and should empower the rank and file. The rules currently cede tremendous power to party leaders and prevent rank and file members from having a meaningful role in the legislative process. He definitely agrees that bills with a majority of cosponsors should receive a voted upon.

Rep. Chris Rabb (D, Philadelphia, HD 200) said there are definite repercussions for not voting the party line and various ways leaders maintain control, including granting or withholding. He said the recent apparent increased productivity of the legislature and spike in passing bipartisan bills is due in part to the number of ceremonial bills and non-controversial resolutions passed. He said that substantive bills that matter to people, bills that impact their lives, “do not see the light of day” because of the power of party leaders to control the agenda.

Fair Districts PA is committed to civic education and using that knowledge to fight to end gerrymandering. We’ve learned that gerrymandering + unfair rules = dead end for reforms.

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