Don’t rush the same old rules through Harrisburg, Common Cause urges

    New Year’s Day also will be inauguration day for members of the Pennsylvania Legislature. For a change, the watchdog group Common Cause wants lawmakers to depart from their normal practice of routinely approving operating rules on the session’s first day.

    It’s a plea the group has made before.

    Common Cause Pennsylvania Executive Director Barry Kauffman has written lawmakers urging them to adopt temporary rules amid the festivities on inauguration day, then take some time to study changes in the way the Legislature operates.

    “We think it’s important for the legislative process to be open, inclusive and deliberative, and the rules play an important role in determining that,” Kauffman said in a telephone interview.

    Kauffman said the the current rules include provisions that, at times, limit the public’s and lawmakers’ understanding of key legislation, and give legislative leaders too much control over what becomes law.

    Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, said that in the 2007-08 session lawmakers made important rules changes, including imposing an eight-hour waiting period after legislation is amended in the Senate before a vote can be taken, and a 24-hour waiting period in the State House.

    Those and other reforms followed the midnight pay raise vote of 2005, which provoked widespread outrage.

    “The Legislature of 2013 is vastly different than the Legislature of what now is something that took place about a decade ago,” Arneson said.

    Stephen Miskin, press secretary for State House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, said legislative leaders also have become more careful in implementing rules. They’ve ended, for example, the practice of quickly achieving legislative goals by tacking unrelated amendments to bills ready for passage. 

    But Kauffman said the rules still permit quick votes on bills that originated in one chamber and return dramatically altered, a circumstance which can leave lawmakers unsure of what they’re voting on.

    “And when lawmakers are not in a position where they can actually understand and have input into (the legislative) process, that fails to serve the voters and citizens of Pennsylvania,” he said.

    Kauffman said the Legislature should also reconsider the power granted committee chairs to keep legislation bottled up, never bringing it up for a vote.

    Arneson said most, though not all, Legislatures grant such power to committee chairs. And he said Senate Republican leaders make sure their members get their questions answered about a pending vote.

    The vote to adopt rules will be open and above board, he said.

    “Everybody knows what’s in the rules,” Arneson said. “Everybody has an opportunity to offer amendments to the rules, so this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a closed process.”

    Arneson says he expects the legislative rules to be adopted on New Year’s Day.

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