Rules discussion sparked legislative ruckus

    So what, exactly, led to yesterday’s Pennsylvania House Rules Committee blowup, and what does it mean for how the lawmakers will work over the next two years?

    Over the objections of Democrats, who walked out during the vote, the committee approved a resolution changing the chamber’s rules so amendments can be set aside, and debate can continue on the bill in question. Under the current setup, passed in response to the 2005 pay raise, a bill is automatically tabled along with the amendment, after that type of vote.

    That wouldn’t be the case of the House approves HR 6. “The passage of a motion to lay an amendment on the table shall not case the subject bill or resolution and all other amendments to be laid on the table,” reads the document. In short, Republican leaders would have the power to swipe aside amendments they don’t want to deal with.

    The resolution would also change the makeup of House committees so 15 Republicans and nine Democrats would sit on each panel. Right now, the minority party has 10 seats on each committee. Twenty-four Democrats would suddenly get the boot from their committees if this passes.

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    Republican leaders said the changes will make the House run more efficiently. They felt like Democrats reneged on an agreement and tried to gum up the process by offering dozens of amendments to the seven measures set for a House vote Wednesday.

    Speaker Sam Smith pointed out several of the measures had passed on near-unanimous votes in previous years. “They were bills that, by and large, everybody in the House supports,” he said. “And without any discussion they tried to load them up with amendments to delay action and create their own circus.”

    Democrat Dan Frankel countered that the amendments were all on-topic. “Every one of them, if you take a look at the substance of them, fills in gaps in those reform bills, and enhances their ability to accomplish what our intention is as a legislative body, in terms of bringing forth reform,” he said.

    That’s true. Some amendments expanded the scope of whistleblower laws. Others set limits on gifts from lobbyists. But many of the amendments were duplicative.

    Frankel, for example, filed seven different amendments to a lobbying disclosure bill. Six of them were on the same topic: expanding definitions of families, so that long-term domestic partners were subject to the same disclosure scrutiny as spouses.

    Minority Leader Frank Dermody attached 12 amendments to another bill. Democratic leaders explained they were only going to call for votes on a handful of the amendments. They filed redundant amendments on several of the bills to give themselves more options on the floor, like clubs in a golf bag, they said.

    At last check, Republicans plan to push forward with the rules change, and hold a House vote on them Monday. The question is, how many Republican members will support the change? After all, they were in the minority just a month ago, and the GOP regularly tied down major bills with dozens of amendments. When Democrats found ways to avoid lengthy floor fights, such as gutting and replacing bills in the Appropriations or Rules Committee, for example, Republican lawmakers cried foul.

    “The matter struck me as an overreach,” tweeted Lancaster County Republican Gordon Denlinger Thursday.

    “Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail on Monday,” replied Democrat Josh Shapiro.

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