Pennsylvania legislature off to a rocky start

Photo by Craig Fildes. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Harrisburg– The first Tuesday of January every other year marks the beginning of the legislative session in the Pennsylvania state legislature. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that has a full-time legislature and January is when lawmakers at the state level are sworn in and begin the work of the people’s business.

In the Pennsylvania House of Representatives once the members have been sworn in, the first vote they take is on adoption of the operating rules. These rules govern how members can debate and how bills are placed on the calendar, a critical part of getting any legislation passed. In the House much of the power and the ability to bring a bill to the floor for a vote rest with the majority party and committee chairs. This year 10 Democrats put forth amendments meant to help break up partisan gridlock and bring up more legislation for a vote.

Steve Samuelson from Northampton introduced an amendment that would guarantee any bill sponsored by 102 members, the number necessary to pass a bill, and included at least 20 members from each party, would get an up or down vote in the House. This would prevent any individual leader or committee chair from blocking legislation that a majority of the chamber is in support of.

Another key amendment was introduced by Pam DeLissio, whose district covers parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County, which would allow for the entire House to have last chance to change the language of a bill. Currently the chairs of the powerful Appropriation and Rules committee have the final say on what the bill says.

All of the amendments introduced by the Democrats were rejected and the House voted 142-54 in favor of the rules with 32 Democrats voting for adoption and one Republican who voted against.

While the House was voting on their rules the Senate was fighting the right of one senator to be sworn in or be seated. Western Pennsylvania was a political battleground in 2020, with Democrats losing seat,s including the leader in the House. Senator Jim Brewster was declared the winner by the slimiest of margins. His district covers parts of Allegheny and Westmoreland County. Prior to the election the state’s Supreme Court issued a ruling that would extend the time period counties could accept mail in ballots, a response to the Post Office experiencing delays delivering the mail. Counties were instructed to set aside those ballots and let the courts decide if necessary.

Those ballots turned out to be important in Brewster’s race where he won by 69 votes. His opponent sued to have the mail-in ballots thrown out, because Allegheny County, when instructed, counted those ballots set aside but Westmoreland refused. This opened up a legal fight that carried over beyond the swearing in day for the Senate. Republicans then refused to seat Brewster, arguing that the court case should be allowed to play out. Democrats strenuously objected; the Democratic lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, was removed for not acknowledging the Republican motion to not seat Brewster. This prompted Democrats to refuse to vote on Senate Leader Jake Corman, a largely ceremonial gesture. Eventual a new presiding officer was installed and the motion to not seat Brewster carried and so he had to wait until the court made their ruling.

Both chambers of the legislature are deeply divided with important legislation and initiatives planned for this session. With control of the legislature in the hands of Republicans and the governor’s mansion and the courts in the hands of Democrats the direction of the commonwealth is at stake for everyone and that is raising the political temperature in an already volatile world.

Photo by Governor Tom Wolf. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)