The Problem is the Process in the State Legislature

'This Republican leadership has more than doubled the procedural abuse, and more importantly, they’re doing it because they don’t want to put up any votes that may give them heartburn politically, which is a cowardly approach to governing.'

One of the most common criticisms of the state Legislature is “they can’t get anything done” in Harrisburg. In many ways, those critics are more correct than they probably realize.

If you want to reduce the biggest obstacle hurting Pennsylvania down to just one word, that word would be “process." Sit back and pay attention to a rare glimpse into the real inner workings of our state government, and try not to throw up your breakfast along the way.

Our system of legislative government hasn’t changed much in more than 200 years. A legislator introduces a bill, the leadership of the majority party brings certain bills up for debate, individual legislators introduce amendments to those bills that are voted on, and then the amended bill is voted on by the entire Legislature.

This legislative process isn’t anything new—it’s basically the same one Benjamin Franklin used as Speaker of Pennsylvania’s Provincial Assembly all the way back in 1764.

Except that isn’t the way it works anymore. Maybe on paper, but not in reality.

After the “wave election” of 2010, the Republican party held a commanding 112-91 majority in the state House of Representatives—10 more votes than the 102 required by the Constitution to pass any law.

With those kinds of numbers, they could pass just about any law they wanted during the 2011-12 legislative session, and judging by the measures they passed—Voter ID and Act 13 (dealing with local accountability on Marcellus Shale) come to mind—they certainly did. But one incredibly important part of the legislative process has all but disappeared: The ability of legislators to try and amend bills.

In theory, there shouldn’t be any way the majority party should be able to stop any member from offering a valid amendment on a bill, but it has happened with historic regularity this session.


It’s all politics.

Many amendments are legitimately good ideas (coming from both Republicans and Democrats) and would be nearly impossible to vote against from a political standpoint, but we’re in an era where unyielding ideology stomps all over bipartisan cooperation (with a very few exceptions largely in the name of window dressing).

So instead of simply voting on amendments in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution, the majority party has resorted to using procedural tricks to prevent amendments that may contradict their political ideology or give a specific legislator they may not particularly like a chance to showcase a good idea.

Instead of voting on anamendment, a member of the majority party will make a motion that the amendment in question is “unconstitutional” or “not germane” to the bill; these procedural votes then pass almost always along party lines and the amendment dies without a vote.

As a result, many amendments never get the vote they are legally entitled to, and perhaps more importantly, members of the majority party avoid "tough votes" that may be hard to explain to the public or the press. Labeling these maneuvers as "just procedural votes" somehow not only makes them totally acceptable, but also serves as the best political shield imaginable, because so far the public and the press seem totally fine with this clear abuse of power and public trust.

It’s almost too good of a scam to be true.

This habitual abuse of process for purely political purposes is just wrong, and it stifles any shred of democracy under the Capitol Dome. Legislators are sent to Harrisburg to confront issues, not hide from the ones we don’t like. But the problem is whenever we talk about these insider maneuvers to the public or the press, either no one usually cares or the standard “well, both parties do it” line emerges.

I don’t deny that parliamentary gamesmanship is an inherent part of the legislative process, and the majority party will win most of those battles, but this is something altogether different.

We operated with a Republican Speaker during my first term in 2007-08, and it was nothing like this, so you cannot just chalk this up to blind partisanship. What has happened in Harrisburg since the Wave of 2010 is historic in a very disturbing way, considering that majority was won largely on cries of undying loyalty to the Constitution.

Let me give you a specific example.

Last week, I offered anamendment to HB 2626, a tax credit bill designed to help employers. The amendment was an idea I had been working on for more than two years—a jobs tax credit for Marcellus Shale workers that would provide a $2,500 credit per employee for Marcellus Shale companies that hire 75 percent of their workforce from Pennsylvania. Not only was the tax credit good policy for Pennsylvania workers and businesses, it was also incredibly relevant to the underlying bill.

But because the leadership didn’t want the amendment to pass but didn’t want their members to have to make an unpopular vote to defeat it, a Republican member made a motion that the amendment was not ‘germane’ to the bill, which is just absolutely ridiculous. The "process vote" was along party lines, and the Republicans killed my proposal without exposing themselves to a politically unpopular vote.

That vote marked the 28th germaneness motion this session, which shatters the previous record of 13, which happened in the 1977-78 session and also the 1995-96 session. In the last 10 years, the germaneness motion has only been used 25 times in five sessions. The only other time we had more than 10 was in the 1999-2000 session, which means we have only had four sessions with 10 or more germaneness motions in the history of entire state House of Representatives.

So I don’t want to hear this “both sides do it” nonsense—this Republican leadership has more than doubled the procedural abuse, and more importantly, they’re doing it because they don’t want to put up any votes that may give them heartburn politically, which is a cowardly approach to governing.

But it isn’t just tax credits and other small issues being smothered by this process; there are much bigger issues simmering beneath the surface.

Last week, when a Democratic legislator tried to bring up HR 520, which asks the US Attorney’s Office to investigate the handling of the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal by then-Attorney General Tom Corbett, the House was promptly adjourned and the next day’s session was cancelled by the Republican majority to avoid debating or voting on the issue.

Afterwards, a constituent sent me an email from a Republican legislator saying he would have voted for the Corbett investigation, but it never came up for a vote. What he failed to mention in the email is the reason it never came up is because the majority utilized a procedural maneuver to prevent the vote from ever taking place.

Pretty convenient, huh?

Governing isn’t about picking and choosing the only the easy shots; it’s about taking a principled stand on tough issues every now and again. If you’re a Democrat you should be angry. If you are an Independent you should be angry. If you are a Republican who truly respects the Constitution, you should be furious at your own party.

The public ought to be foaming at the mouth over these kinds of shenanigans, and the press should be looking past the glib talking points and really asking the tough questions on these abuses of power. If there are no consequences for this shameful perversion of the public trust, what makes anyone think it will ever change?

Karen gritzan October 13, 2012 at 12:59 PM
I stand with you Rep. White. There is something fundamentally wrong here and the other commenters just don't seem to get it. You are NOT whining here - you are pointing out an unsavory truth. I am an independent who votes the man, not the party. For the first time in my voting life I will be voting only for democrats. Not because I think they are necessarily better, but more to make a point and to express my severe disappointment at the horrible abuse of power on display by this republican controlled senate. I saw the video of that senator talking about the voter ID law as a way to hand Mitt Romney Pennsylvania - unbelievably DISGUSTING!!! What saddens me the most is that WE the people are allowing this to happen. WE have taught our local and national politicians that its fine to lie, steal and cheat - there are no consequences. As a result, this lack of accountability has caused abuses when there is no check or balance, and in the case of our national representatives, the unmitigated gall to flat out dig their heels in and refuse to help the vary Americans who needed them the most because regaining power and control was more important. I refuse to vote for any party that blatantly puts their political interests above the will if the people. But until We the people decide to stop acting like jerks and seeing things as RED or BLUE issues and stand together to hold these (insert ur fave epithet here) accountable, we will continue to get what we DON'T vote for.
cecil resident October 13, 2012 at 02:25 PM
Karen I did not hear any complaints when democrates had control look how Obama Care got push thru the senate an unread thousands of page document on Christmas Eve. Democrats have controlled Pennsylvania a lot more than Republicans have but as soon as republicans get control and don't pass every bill the democrates want right away the system is broke.You say Republicans comments are DISGUSTING do I need to bring up all of the DISGUSTING things stated by the Democratic party and the only thing you that bothers you is the one about the ID law their are a lot worse ones out their . It is not the systems that's broke it is because we keep putting the same people back into office and leadership if you don't have a leader who can bring together both parties nothing will get done. Also the politician themselves they let personal issue consume their actions maybe if they feel their bill is all that good , cross that line get some some of the other party to back the bill with them. So many of our politicans have ego problems and they feel the need to have everything their way they don't want to share the limelight. We have the greatest governing system in the world it is the politicans on both sides who are broke. How I pick my people to vote for is look at their records, look how they vote and what issues they back. If at the end of their term if they are stuck on their own agenda and can't do anything but complain and find excuses time to go.
Karen gritzan October 13, 2012 at 05:50 PM
The fact that you want to point out what the left has done wrong says you still don't get it. I don't usually make comments on boards like this, but when I saw your comment, I felt compelled to respond. I will say AGAIN, Proud American, you've MISSED the point. 2 wrongs don't make a right. I don’t care and it doesn’t matter whether the guy bleeds BLUE or RED. I am shocked that as a "Proud American" YOU are not disgusted by any State Senator, from either side, having the audacity to talk about handing an election to anyone. IT's OUR vote and he is a public SERVANT!! He should NEVER have uttered those words in the Senate, whether he actually believed them or not. We have a huge corporation taking away each municipality’s right to decide for themselves what they are willing to put up with and what they won’t. Maybe that’s a good idea, maybe it’s not, but it should be discussed. The point Rep White is making is that they are blocking the discussion. That’s not the time to have an attitude that says ‘yeah, you’re just mad because our guys are in power’. It’s time to say, ‘hey, where’s the accountability then??’ ‘Who’s asking questions to make sure everything is on the up and up! Having accountability is GOOD for YOU, Proud American, and good for us all. Let go of your partisan bias and WAKE UP. Just because they guy’s wearing the same colors as you doesn’t mean you should blindly follow him.
cecil resident October 13, 2012 at 06:56 PM
Karen I am sorry my comment upset you but you were the who is lumping parties together quote "For the first time in my voting life I will be voting only for democrats. Not because I think they are necessarily better, but more to make a point and to express my severe disappointment at the horrible abuse of power on display by this republican controlled senate" unquote. And you are condeming all republicans because of what one senator said and not passing every amendment that is put forth maybe some do not deserve to be put forth .I totally agree it was wrong what the senator said and two wrongs don't make a right. Condeming a whole party for one man's actions is also wrong. You want to put people in office just to make a point that could be the reason we have so many bad politicans in office.The wonderful world of the internet lets a voter be a lot more informed you can see how they vote on bills, all politicans have their own personal site and they are on facebook look at what they post check out what they are saying, and don't take their word as gospel google it. I have found out in both parties what they print and say is not always the truth and voting all for one party doesn't make a lot of sense voting along party lines is never a wise choice.
cecil resident October 13, 2012 at 07:03 PM
To show I practice what I preach I like Senator Solobay-D attended a symposium he helped sponser a symposium of the affect of the oil and gas industry in Washington County and the state. There are jobs being created so people are being hired personally I know quite a few. Senator Murphy-R he does a lot of work for the military and on social security things that I feel are very important. Rep Neuman-D has come to my attention with a program call STEM that could help young people pick carreers that are needed for jobs in Washington county, also noted he doesn't always vote along party lines I will keep my eyes on him. I use to vote along party lines not any more to many bad apples on both sides if a candidate wants my vote he has to earn it republican or democrate.


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