Clandestine plan to force a vote on Pa. legislative gift ban fails, lawmakers shrug

The state Capitol building in Harrisburg.

The state Capitol building in Harrisburg. (Tom Downing/WITF)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Activists who want the Pennsylvania General Assembly to ban lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators thought they had a way around the institutional blockade: recruit a lawmaker on the inside.

Heading into this week, they said one unidentified state House lawmaker would stand up and force a vote on whether to consider the bill, defying Republican leadership that controls what does — and doesn’t — come up in the chamber.

But as one of the last scheduled session days of the year ended Wednesday, no one stood up, leaving advocates with nothing to do but concede.

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“We’re tired of talking with these people,” Michael Pollack, executive director of the good government group March on Harrisburg, said. “They give us hollow promises. They say they’re going to do the right thing. And then they don’t.”

Gifts — including tickets to concerts and sporting events, and trips to prime vacation destinations — are commonplace in Harrisburg and have drawn the ire of activists who argue they amount to legalized bribery amid widespread distrust in government.

Lawmakers from both major parties have countered that such an interpretation is too simple: A lavish trip rarely influences their policy decisions, and banning gifts is not a top priority for most voters.

Despite years of advocacy and flashy protests — including a 2019 demonstration that saw members drop dollar bills on the state House floor — March on Harrisburg has yet to succeed in convincing lawmakers to legislate away one of their own perks of the job.

This session, they rallied behind a compromise bill from state Rep. Aaron Kaufer (R., Luzerne) that would ban lawmakers from receiving any gifts, transportation, lodging, or recreation of over $250 in value from a single source each year. The proposal, however, would still allow lawmakers to receive free meals.

Unlike many states, Pennsylvania law places no monetary limits on gifts, only banning them “based on the offeror’s or donor’s understanding that the vote, official action or judgment of the public official or public employee or nominee or candidate for public office would be influenced thereby.” Pennsylvania House rules also specifically ban cash gifts, though such a gift is allowed in the Senate.

The law does require lawmakers to report gifts of over $250 in value and hospitality, such as meals or travel, of more than $650 on their yearly ethics disclosure.

However, those thresholds and the ability of lobbyists to spread costs among multiple clients may “result in a substantial skewing of the public’s perception of money actually spent on public officials and employees,” a 2019 state House study found.

For instance, in 2018, while public reports listed nearly $40,000 in gifts, meals, and other hospitality to lawmakers, the actual total was closer to $1.5 million.

Since advancing out of committee in March 2021, Pollack and company have tried to get Republican Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) to schedule a vote on the bill, to no avail.

With the end of the two-year session quickly approaching, Pollack and his fellow provocateurs said they recruited a lawmaker they declined to publicly name to make a procedural move to force a vote on the bill Monday.

Support, as well as opposition, to the gift ban crosses party lines. Kaufer’s bill has 22 sponsors of varying ideologies, from state Rep. Sara Innamorato (D., Allegheny), a democratic socialist, to archconservatives including state Rep. Frank Ryan (R., Lebanon).

But during Monday’s session of the state House, no lawmaker stood up to make the move. In fact, the chamber adjourned while Pollack and his fellow activists were still holding a press conference on their effort.

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“Congrats Jordan Harris, you win,” Pollack said upon learning of the state House’s adjournment, referencing the No. 3 Democrat in the chamber. “Congrats Kerry Benninghoff, you took this round.”

Spokespeople for Benninghoff and Harris declined to comment.

Harris has previously defended lawmakers’ cozy relationship with lobbyists, saying in 2019 that “there’s a tension at the meeting table that doesn’t happen at the dinner table, and it’s because of that that people are actually able to get things done.”

The lack of action comes after activists rallied at the Capitol on Monday, stopping lawmakers to let them know of the coming vote and dropping banners in the rotunda that read “We don’t trust you” and “Will PA end bribery today?”

In private conversations and interactions, lawmakers from both major parties made clear their disregard for the activists, arguing that March on Harrisburg’s tone was not likely to win over any converts among lawmakers, staff, and lobbyists. Many also appeared unfamiliar with the specifics of the proposal March on Harrisburg was pushing.

One Democrat, who requested anonymity to discuss the proposal candidly, said they “never looked too closely” at the bill “because it’s not going anywhere.”

“I’ve never seen a piece of legislation passed on the basis of antagonizing every human being under the sun,” the lawmaker said.

House Democratic spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said that the bill as written was “unconstitutionally vague,” and that the caucus would prefer to focus on putting caps on the state’s campaign finance laws.

Under current law, donors may give an unlimited amount of money to candidates. Adding limits, Reigelman argued, would give the people a greater voice in Harrisburg.

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