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New Pa. House rules sought to strengthen bipartisanship. Insiders say it didn’t work.

The state House is now passing more bills from the minority party. But insiders say the bipartisan productivity is because of a slim partisan divide, not because of new chamber rules.

  • Stephen Caruso/SpotlightPA
The Pennsylvania House floor inside the Capitol building in Harrisburg.

 Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

The Pennsylvania House floor inside the Capitol building in Harrisburg.

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds power to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania.

During the chaotic start to this year’s legislative session, Pennsylvania House Democrats used their new majority to pass a high-profile set of changes to chamber rules that backers said would make the government more productive and bipartisan.

Under the new rules, members of the minority party have more committee representation, while committee chairs have a stronger check on their ability to unilaterally sink bipartisan legislation.

But as the two-year session reaches the halfway mark, good-government advocates and Republican members of the state House minority caucus say nothing has changed. The majority party, observers said, is not any less powerful, and an increase in minority party bills is driven by Democrats’ goodwill — and could reverse anytime.

“The rules have not made a difference,” said Carol Kuniholm, executive director of Fair Districts PA, a group that advocates for more transparency in government.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) made the rules package, which is named after him, a central plank of his three-month speakership. He was elected speaker in a surprise bipartisan vote as the parties jostled for power in the narrowly divided chamber.

At the time, he told Spotlight PA that the “Rozzi Rules” would “allow 102 members from whatever party they are in to move legislation through this House.”

“Leaders need to be equal amongst everybody,” Rozzi added.

The rules were developed by six lawmakers picked by Rozzi who took a multiweek, statewide listening tour, and adopted in a party-line vote.

This project came at a time of complete deadlock in the chamber. During the November 2022 election, Democrats won a one-seat majority after more than a decade of GOP control. But when the session began in January, three seats Democrats had won were vacant because of a lawmaker’s death and two wins for higher office.

The turmoil, and Rozzi’s compromise speakership, ended when Democrats won the three vacant seats in February, and the caucus elected state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) to lead the chamber as speaker.

Status quo

Since the new rules took effect and the chamber began its regular operations under full Democratic control in March, the state House has passed 200-plus bills, including stricter gun control, a minimum wage hike, and LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections.

Alongside Democratic priorities, the state House has passed 28 bills with a Republican prime sponsor, according to the office of Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery). That’s in contrast to the 2021-22 session, in which the Republican-controlled chamber passed just 17 Democratic-sponsored bills over two years.

Good-government advocates and members of the new GOP minority argue the increase is a product of Democratic leadership’s willingness to bring up Republican bills, rather than the new rules.

State Rep. Paul Schemel (R., Franklin), a member of Rozzi’s work group, said party control is the most powerful determinant of what legislation passes the state House.

“None of the other nuances of the rules really matter when the majority can basically, at any moment, determine what’s going to move forward and what’s not,” Schemel told Spotlight PA.

Rozzi acknowledged the role of leadership while also defending his rules, telling Spotlight PA that the increased passage of Republican bills means that the chamber is “heading … in the right direction for the first time in a decade.”

In an interview, McClinton said that from the start of her speakership, she hoped to fold the Republican minority’s proposals into Democrats’ governing agenda.

“We said if there’s a good idea, we’re not going to take someone’s name off the bill and say, ‘We’ll find a Democrat to author it,’” McClinton said. “We’ve been in the minority for a very long time and we recognize that that should be about productivity. It shouldn’t be about who gets, quote unquote, ‘credit.’”

Rozzi also argued that changes to discharge petitions, a legislative maneuver that allows for a full House vote on a bill if a committee chair refuses to schedule a vote, “must weigh on every chairman’s thought process” as they set their agendas and encourage them to pass Republicans’ legislation.

In past sessions, only 25 lawmakers were needed to sign a discharge petition, but the rule was toothless. Committee chairs could block the threat by referring bills to another committee, or by gutting the bills with amendments. GOP committee chairs used these tactics to avoid votes on bills that would have expanded the state’s gun laws in 2022 and would have added Affordable Care Act protections to state law in 2020.

The new rules got rid of the referral loophole but raised the bar for a successful discharge petition to at least 50 lawmakers, including at least 25 from each major party. As of December, no one has filed a discharge petition using the new process.

At least one change weakened a tool that could be used by insurgents in either party to force a vote on popular measures, said Michael Pollack, executive director of the good-government group March on Harrisburg.

The new rules, noted Pollack, quietly added at least a daylong waiting period to a provision known as a “special order of business,” which allows for any lawmaker to ask for an immediate vote on any bill that has passed out of committee, even if the majority leader has not added it to the daily voting calendar.

Pollack’s group planned to use the measure to force a vote on a statewide gift ban for public officials, including legislators. The measure is a longstanding priority of March on Harrisburg that is popular with the public but has repeatedly stalled in the legislature amid opposition and procedural delays.

The group’s special order of business never materialized in the fall of 2022. It faced determined backroom opposition from legislative leaders in both parties, who ultimately stopped lawmakers from ever making the motion.

The maneuver was used in spring 2022 by conservative dissidents to force a vote on a constitutional amendment to limit state spending. The special order of business failed 82-120, in the face of opposition from nearly every Democrat and dozens of labor-friendly Republicans.

Pollack called the special order of business “a nuclear option to allow a little bit of democracy on the House floor.” But with the waiting period, leaders now have warning and more time to dissuade rebellious lawmakers from going forward with a vote on a bill that leadership opposes.

Looking at the rules overall, Pollack said that they kept the chamber’s top-down structure intact.

“Some governing styles are more across the aisle than the other. The problem is they have extreme concentrated power,” Pollack said. “If they see fit to use it in a bipartisan manner, OK. If they see fit to wield it in a partisan manner, OK. The problem is they have that concentrated power.”

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