Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives updated some of its ethics rules in what officials called a push for clarity.
Initially, many news outlets (including NewsWorks) highlighted rule changes that aimed at greater accountability for lawmakers found to have broken the law, after state Rep. Leslie Acosta, D-Philadelphia, stood unopposed for re-election last year. Acosta secretly pleaded guilty to felony embezzlement charges in March, but the charges weren’t public until the Philadelphia Inquirer broke the story in September.
Upon further examination of the resolution introducing those changes, newspaper editorial boards from different corners of the commonwealth have sounded the alarm over a House procedural change they say reduces transparency.
“Even as the chamber gave [reforms] with one hand, it took away with another,” wrote the PennLive editorial board, by “adopting language that would require the chamber to wait just six hours, instead of the previous 24 hours, before making a final vote on proposed legislation that was amended by the state Senate.”
Context for the 24-hour rule is important. While not a part of the House ethics rule themselves, that procedural time lag was built in following a 2005 scandal over literal fly-by-night legislation.
At 2 a.m. on July 7 of that year, the state House of Representatives voted — and Gov. Ed Rendell signed — a bill giving legislators a large raise, in some case a third more than their previous base pay. In the ensuing backlash, a reform committee recommended several rule changes, including the 24-hour waiting period for the House to vote on amended bills.
Instead of moving toward greater transparency, the move represents a backslide toward dysfunction, according to critics.
“So now, we’ve got legislation that essentially is sausage that is going to get ground up dirtier, quicker and without any public input,” said Eric Epstein, chairman of Rock the Capital, a good-government group founded in the wake of the 2005 scandal.
State Rep. Scott Petri, chair of the House Ethics committee for the last four years, said tightening the time frame for votes helps give the House a tactical advantage when working with the state Senate.
“In a lot of ways, the legislative calendar is a lot like a football game,” said Petri, R-Bucks. “Running and managing the clock is a major role for the majority leader.”
It’s not unheard of for the Senate to amend a bill, send it to the House, and leave for a recess during the 24-hour timeout, according to Petri. That leaves the House no choice but to vote down the bill, or accept it without further change.
Petri also highlighted the many ethics changes in the resolution that have been lauded, such as clarifying the role of outside counsel in investigations and prohibiting complaints from going public in the 60 days before an election so the committee’s work won’t become a form of political sabotage.
The state Senate, which makes its own procedural rules, has a six-hour time out between the introduction of amended bills and voting, so the rule change puts the two chambers on “equal footing,” according to supporters.
To avoid shorting the public on deliberation time and to synchronize the legislative ping-ponging between House and Senate that often occurs at the end of legislative sessions, some offer another solution.
“The pressure should be on the Senate to lengthen its waiting period to 24 hours, rather than to reduce the House transparency standard,” wrote the editorial board of the Scranton Times-Tribune.
It and other editorial boards are urging the House to reconsider the change when its session begins in earnest on Jan. 23.