How Harrisburg Works: The rules for Pa. lawmaker per diems, speaker v. leader, and other Q and As

The Pennsylvania Capitol is shown in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021.

The Pennsylvania Capitol is shown in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

The Pennsylvania Capitol is a convoluted place.

Spotlight PA’s Stephen Caruso wants to help you understand how the sausage really gets made, how your tax dollars are spent, and how Harrisburg works (or doesn’t).

Below, Caruso answers three reader questions. Have your own? Submit them to scaruso@spotlightpa.org.

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“What are the rules for per diems?”

There are few restrictions on per diems, as Spotlight PA has previously covered.

When lawmakers travel more than 50 miles from their home on legislative business, they are eligible to receive compensation for their meal and lodging expenses, state House Comptroller Jennifer Benko said.

They can do so through three methods:

  • Requesting a flat per diem as set by the federal General Services Administration. The exact rates differ depending on location and timing, but the per-day rate in Harrisburg is $181 — $117 for housing and $64 for food.
  • Requesting a flat per diem as set by the IRS, currently $202 in most of Pennsylvania. A lawmaker who stays in Hershey or Philadelphia during certain months may receive more due to a cost-of-living adjustment for those areas.
  • Submitting receipts for their actual food and lodging expenses, with a cap of $181 per day, as set by the GSA.

State House lawmakers who want to receive per diems must pick either the GSA or IRA rate and stick with it for an entire year, however they always retain the option of just submitting receipts. They must also attest that they were in the location on business.

The state Senate operates under largely the same rules, but there is no cap on the total reimbursement if a lawmaker submits receipts.

There are no specific lists of suggested hotels or restaurants for either chamber. Read more about lawmakers’ expenses here.

“What is the difference between the speaker of the house and the majority leader?”

The speaker of the state House is supposed to represent the whole institution, while the majority leader acts for their fellow party members.

The powers that come with those different roles are distinct.

State House rules charge the speaker, currently Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), with setting the session calendar, picking the chairs of each committee, referring bills to committees, and setting the date for special elections to replace members who’ve left office early.

The speaker, who is elected by the 203 members of the chamber, is also tasked with preserving “order and decorum” during debates. They call up bills for a vote from a set calendar, give the floor to lawmakers who want to speak, and make sure that the arguments don’t get off track.

The state House majority leader, currently Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), is at the head of a leadership team chosen by members of the party in power. That team is supposed to build the policy agenda, see it turned into legislation, pitch these proposals to the public and then convince the party’s lawmakers to vote for them, a process known as “whipping.”

The majority leader has the final say on what legislation actually makes it onto the voting calendar, which the speaker needs to run the session.

As chamber employees are paid by the caucus, not the state, the majority leader also has an important role in deciding patronage, said former House powerbroker Bill DeWeese, a Democrat who previously held both posts.

The combined ability to control the agenda and jobs is “a big deal” and makes the majority leader powerful, he said.

But “by sheer force of personality, speakers have been able to hold their own, in spite of the structural dynamics to the benefit of the majority leader,” he added.

The speaker is also part of this leadership team, Capitol insiders note, and previous speakers — such as John Perzel (R., Philadelphia) and Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny)— were sometimes known to be a leading voice in internal decisions.

But Mike Straub, Cutler’s spokesperson, said the current speaker tries not to weigh in on the political issues as much.

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“We don’t see the speaker’s office as giving the final approval on every single bill,” Straub said. “We call up the bills and play umpire from there.”

“How do caucuses work? Can anyone set them up? Why are they secret?”

A caucus is a group of lawmakers, but in the General Assembly it has two meanings.

First, there are the partisan caucuses, the most important ones. The House and Senate are largely run along partisan lines, with the Democratic and Republican caucuses handling such responsibilities as overseeing IT, printing, bulk purchasing, human resources, and messenger services separately rather than as a whole.

There are also so-called “affinity caucuses,” which unite like-minded lawmakers regardless of party to advance a shared goal.

These informal groups may bring together lawmakers with similar policy stances, like opposing abortion access; unite lawmakers with similar backgrounds like the Legislative Black Caucus; or ones that are just for fun, like the Seersucker Caucus that gathers dozens of smiling lawmakers each June for a group photo in suits of the light blue fabric.

Keeping tabs on the total number of caucuses is difficult. The Caucus/LNP reported in 2019 that there were more than 100 of the groups. A Senate Republican spokesperson shared a list of 60 caucuses with Spotlight PA this week, but acknowledged it was dated.

As they are informal groups rather than official government bodies, caucuses do not have to follow the state’s Sunshine Act, which mandates public meetings for when a body takes official action.

The state’s open records law also largely exempts the General Assembly’s records from public view, including “internal, predecisional deliberations” or documents that reveal the “strategy to be used to develop or achieve the successful adoption of a budget, legislative proposal or regulation.”

But each caucus differs. The Pro-Life Caucus holds private meetings; members are informed via email.

Other caucuses may seek publicity, like when 16 state House lawmakers announced in 2021 that they wanted to find more bipartisan compromise through the “PA One Caucus.” The Legislative Black Caucus has its own website with a member list and an executive director.

House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman also noted that the caucuses often do not use state dollars for their activities.

“While many serve an important role in informing members about various issues, they are outside the official legislative sphere,” he added in an email.

Some lawmakers’ websites, particularly state House Democrats, may also list the affinity caucuses they are members of, though there is no way to check if a list is comprehensive.

“Some of our members are very proud of the caucuses they serve on,” state House Democratic spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said.

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