Testimony to Speaker Rozzi’s Workgroup on House Rules

Marc Stier |

Testimony by Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, to Speaker Rozzi’s Workgroup on House Rules. St. Joseph’s University, Friday, January 27, 2023

My name is Marc Stier. I’m the director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, and I live in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia.

I want to thank you, Speaker Rozzi, and the members of the workgroup for creating this opportunity for the people of Pennsylvania to speak out about the rules of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

This process has been criticized by those who say that it is delaying the start of the legislative session. But what is more important for the House of Representatives to undertake now than to fix the rules that have too often led to undemocratic results in Harrisburg?

Our organization believes that there are two fundamental problems with the way the House has operated in the recent past.

The first is that the rules do not allow a majority of the House to accomplish its policy goals.

A fundamental principle of democracy is majority rule. There are limits to the principle of majority rule embedded in American constitutional thought. But it is central to the American ideal of democracy that these limitations on majority rule should not permanently block the majority of a legislative body from acting. We especially cannot allow them to block legislation that has broad bipartisan support.

Too often in the last decade, ideas supported by a bipartisan majority have been blocked because the majority party leadership has refused to allow committees to hold hearings or act on legislation or has blocked legislation from coming to the floor. We have even seen a session of the House gaveled to a close by the speaker when the House was about to enact legislation he opposed.

We can fix this problem by requiring committee hearings and action on legislation that has the support of either a majority of members or a substantial minority of members from both parties and then ensuring that such legislation is ultimately brought to the floor.

The second issue is the practice of legislating by constitutional amendment as a way of contravening the separation of powers, which gives the governor the right to veto or approve it.

There is a legitimate place for constitutional amendments. Our organization strongly supports the constitutional amendment that would give survivors of sexual abuse the ability to seek justice in the courts.

But seeking to secure policy changes that can be attained by legislation through a constitutional amendment process is an abuse of that process. It is especially egregious when constitutional amendments are considered without public hearings and multiple amendments are considered in the House in a single bill.

Defenders of recent policy-oriented constitutional amendments say that, ultimately, the people have the right to approve or reject constitutional amendments.

That argument, however, neglects one of the central features of politics: the power to set the agenda is one of the most important ways political power is exercised.

I would support an amendment creating a referendum process in Pennsylvania that allows the people, by petition, to put referenda on the ballot during general elections.

But when the rules of the House allow the majority party and it alone to decide which policy-oriented constitutional amendments can be put on the ballot and allows them to put these on the ballot at times when relatively few voters come to the polls, the goal is not really to allow the people to decide on the direction of the state. The goal is to use unfair rules to attain a pre-determined result that cannot be achieved through the normal legislative process.

In a longer piece, I will expand on my remarks today. I just want to conclude by again thanking you, Speaker Rozzi, for setting up this necessary and important discussion.