Putting People over Partisanship
There is a time and place for partisanship. Sometimes important bills need to get pushed through the legislature because they won’t get passed any other way. And seeing a politician (or a party that is not sharing your values) get what they have coming to them, can be entertaining and satisfying. But when partisanship becomes the norm in government, our democracy becomes disjointed, disengaging, and corrodes.
After an incredible amount of hard work, my party succeeded in winning back control of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives this fall. Democratic priorities include implementing a livable minimum wage, ensuring that all children can get a high-quality public education, and mitigating our gun violence, opioid, and climate crises. One of my first priorities that several of my fellow first-term members and I fought for was reforming the partisan rules our chamber had been operating under for over a decade.
I believe these forms that we fought for, and passed, will remove some of the partisanship from our beloved Capitol.
First, we successfully changed the ability of one chairperson (or a party’s leadership) to prevent good bills from ever seeing the light of day. We took away the ability of the majority party to shift one bill from committee to committee so that it never gets voted to the House. That scheme, which was permitted under the old rules, was like the schoolyard game "keep away.” Except instead of your Eagles cap being passed around and never returned, it might be a bill to cap insulin prices. We also added a provision allowing a process for bills with strong bipartisan support could leave committees and go to the entire legislature for consideration.
Second, standing committees, where bills go for consideration once they are introduced by a lawmaker, were streamlined. Total committee membership was reduced from 25 to 21, giving members more of a say in the process.
Reducing the size of committees also reduced the burden of legislators to serve on excess committees so potential legislation can get the care and attention it deserves. And with the power we have, Democrats reduced their partisan advantage in the committees. Now, the minority party only needs to get the support of two members of the majority party to pass a bill out of the committee, not three—giving a stronger voice to deserving bills that may not have otherwise been considered by the full house.
Third, those in the minority party will now be able to call a witness in any committee hearings. This clause will enable those with opposing viewpoints on bills to have their voices heard.
Fourth, we made significant changes to the process of passing constitutional amendments to make this significant process more democratic. Constitutional amendments must have a hearing before they are voted on. Multiple constitutional amendments cannot be jammed into a single bill. And any constitutional amendments must be voted on in general elections, when more voters are paying attention and are coming out to vote.
Fifth, we kept the new provision to prevent incoming state legislators from leasing cars on the taxpayers' dime.
And finally, and most significantly, we fought to improve protections for victims of harassment and discrimination.
Now those who are harassed by a lawmaker have expanded protections to file a case in the PA House Ethics Committee. These protections would have allowed union official Andi Perez to have pursued justice earlier against the lawmaker whom she alleges sexually harassed her in 2019. I sat behind Perez in January at nearby St. Joseph’s University as she told her harrowing story at a listening tour stop hosted by then-Speaker Mark Rozzi. I believe Andi Perez, and was proud to join several of my Democratic colleagues in calling for the resignation of State Representative Mike Zabel in the wake of her revelation in early March that Zabel was the perpetrator. Thankfully, Zabel has since resigned.
I am proud to have committed much time in my first few months in the legislature to advocate for rules reform to ensure our system of democracy is fairer. While the rules we passed were not perfect, we needed to get 102 members to pass them, so some compromises had to be made. Although the rules changed were passed on a party-line vote, even Minority Leader Bryan Cutler admitted he was encouraged by some of the reforms. I believe our new House rules are a win for bipartisanship, justice, and for our democracy!
This Op-Ed will appear in the April 2023 edition of East Falls Now