House Rules Harrisburg's Standard Operating Procedure Could Use Some Tinkering To Encourage Better Lawmaking

Posted: September 12, 1994

Imagine a body that's cut vertically into two halves - a body with more than 200 parts, most of them weak. That sums up the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. It's sharply divided along party lines, and only a few members of the majority party have much power at all.

The way Harrisburg is run, most representatives - even some from the majority party - have the devil's own time even getting legislation out of committee for a vote on the floor. There's something to be said for the discipline and focus on agenda that comes from strong party leadership. But a group of reform-minded legislators, along with Common Cause of Pennsylvania, argue that the situation in Harrisburg has gone beyond discipline. What they see, and would like to change, are a stranglehold on discussion and an addiction to legislative brinksmanship.

Any legislative body tends to be at its worst when it works at double-speed against a deadline, with members voting on bills they haven't had time to read. The Pennsylvania House ends up in such bleary-eyed vote fests year after year.

On adjournment day in 1992, for example, the House voted on, among other things, judicial pay raises and auto-emissions legislation, with scant opportunity to review the details.

It's a good time to talk about changing how the House works, because no ones knows who'll be running the shop come January. Speaker H. William DeWeese of Greene County and his Democrats are clinging to a one-vote majority, but many expect Rep. Matthew J. Ryan of Delaware County and his Republicans to turn that around in November.

Common Cause suggests requiring that legislators be given printed copies of all conference reports at least 24 hours before they are to be considered. Having a fighting chance to know what you're voting on - that's reasonable.

Setting new rules is one thing. Making sure they aren't discarded whenever they prove inconvenient to the majority party is another.

That's why the proponents of rules reform, including Rep. Gregory S. Vitali (D., Delaware) and David J. Steil (R., Bucks), recommend a two-thirds vote, instead of a simple majority, to suspend the rules. That's the norm in state legislatures around the country, and it's sensible.

If voting on a colleague's bill with only the vaguest idea of what it would do is little fun, watching helplessly as your own legislation languishes without a floor debate or vote is even less. The reform group would like to amend the state constitution to require that the House and Senate vote on bills in the order committees approved them. Requiring votes seems fair; insisting on that order doesn't. House and Senate leaders need some flexibility.

One proposal that seems arbitrary is limiting how many bills a legislator can introduce per year. The idea is to curb politicians who introduce bills to please constituents or influence contributors, not to get them passed. Legislators who wallpaper the chamber this way should simply get exposed as empty suits by the media, voter groups and political opponents.

Sure, many of the reformers' ideas are procedural stuff designed to slow your pulse. But the end result of the current situation is often sloppy lawmaking that sets your blood boiling.

When politicians talk about ways to help them be better lawmakers, people ought to listen.

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