A legislative soap opera

Disarray, betrayal and contention shakes legislature

Posted 1/24/23

HARRISBURG, PA — Just weeks into the new year, the Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives has been rocked by disorganization and unkept promises.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, the …

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A legislative soap opera

Disarray, betrayal and contention shakes legislature


HARRISBURG, PA — Just weeks into the new year, the Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives has been rocked by disorganization and unkept promises.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, the future of a proposed constitutional amendment that enjoys wide bipartisan support is now in question after GOP lawmakers bundled it together with more controversial proposals.

A House divided

Rep. Mark Rozzi of Berks County has had one of the more peculiar rises to House leadership in recent memory. After Democrats just barely took control of the House in November—winning 102 seats over Republicans’ 101—they felt poised to select Rep. Joanna McClinton, a Democrat from Philadelphia, as Speaker of the House.

McClinton would have made a historic leader, the first black woman to preside over the chamber in the commonwealth’s history. However, when it came time to elect her on January 3, three Democratic seats were vacant due to resignations and a death, and the party lacked the votes they needed.

In the midst of a contentious and confusing day in Harrisburg, Rep. Jim Gregory, a Republican, made a spur-of-the-moment decision to nominate a close ally and personal friend of his, the moderate Democrat Mark Rozzi.

Both Gregory and Rozzi are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and have worked closely together on getting justice for other survivors in Pennsylvania.

But the nomination came with a condition: Rozzi will change his party affiliation from Democrat to Independent and therefore caucus with neither party.

After winning the speaker election, Rozzi vowed to change his party affiliation, and to be a force for bipartisanship in the House, promising to form a staff made up of both Democrats and Republicans.

“I pledge my allegiance and my loyalty to no interest in this building, to no interest in our politics. I pledge my loyalty to the people of the commonwealth, to the people who are tired of the hyper-partisanship in both parties,” Rozzi said. “I pledge to put people above politics and the institution before ideology.”

Republicans originally praised Rozzi’s commitment to progress over party, but as days passed and Rozzi’s affiliation remained unchanged, his allies began to feel as though they’d been had.

On January 9, Gregory, the lawmaker who nominated him in the first place called for Rozzi’s resignation.

“Six days ago, you and I experienced the absolute professional highlight of our time here… As survivors and thrivers, what a symbol it was for me to hand you the gavel to officially open our 2023-24 session,” Gregory wrote in a letter addressed to Rozzi. “However, it was with great sadness for me as your friend that you would admit to me Saturday [January 7] that you are only thinking about switching… The bonds of trust between friends—as close as you and I have been—are now broken. As a result of your broken promises, I must sadly and respectfully ask for you to immediately resign the office of Speaker.”

With the members of his own party seeing him as a stand-in for the speaker they wanted to elect, and members of the opposite party feeling that he’s gone back on his promises, it’s unclear how long Rozzi’s reign as speaker will last.

Amending the constitution

With alliances and friendships dissolving in the background, the outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf and newly elected Rozzi called a special session to be held January 9. Its purpose: proposing an amendment to the commonwealth’s constitution that would open a two-year window for victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue their alleged abusers or institutions on otherwise outdated claims.

As a survivor himself, Rozzi said that getting this amendment passed so that PA residents can vote on it this coming May was his top priority as speaker. In fact, he said he’ll consider no other legislation until this gets resolved.

Constitutional amendments work differently than regular legislation. After a proposed amendment gets passed by both chambers of the General Assembly, it’s given to Pennsylvania residents as a referendum on the next statewide election. Importantly, the governor cannot veto a constitutional amendment.

There’s not much time to spare. To get the amendment on voters’ ballots in May, the legislature has only until early February to pass it.

Republican leadership in both chambers are in favor of this amendment, however, they opposed the use of a special session, arguing that the matter could have been better handled in a regular session.

Things on January 9 got off to a rocky start as the parties struggled to find any consensus about operating rules. Ultimately, the session made no progress on the amendment at hand, and Rozzi sent legislators home.

In the days following, the GOP-led state Senate passed a bill that bundled the bipartisan sexual abuse survivor amendment together with two more controversial, partisan amendments that Republicans have been pushing for:

  • A mandate for universal voter ID, and
  • A provision giving the General Assembly more power to override regulations from the governor’s office they disapprove of, and restrict the governor’s power to veto the General Assembly in these situations.

A strategy?

Republicans have turned to constitutional amendments before, seemingly as a way of bypassing the gubernatorial veto that so frequently thwarted their efforts to undo the regulations and restrictions Gov. Wolf enacted during the height of the COVID-19 crisis.

Republican lawmakers used the strategy last year with Senate Bill 106, which contained five notably divisive amendments, including one that would enshrine in state law that there’s no constitutional right to an abortion in PA, one to expand voter ID laws, and a third to diminish the powers of the executive office.

Government watchdog groups are extremely critical of this style of legislating, saying that it lacks transparency and public input, and upsets the balance of power. Democratic lawmakers also oppose the liberal use of amendments, saying it effectively shuts them out of the conversation.

Susan Gobreski, board director for government policy with the League of Women Voters of PA (LWVPA), said that by attempting to get this latest package of amendments on primary ballots in May, lawmakers are dramatically reducing the level on which the public weighs in, because voter turnout during primaries is historically so low.

“When issues are on the ballot in the primary, far fewer people vote, so getting [referendum] votes to happen on a primary ballot reduces public input on the issue,” she said.

Meghan Pierce, LWVPA’s executive director, added, “When folks do vote, they’re often uninformed about what they’re voting on, and often the questions are framed in confusing language… Here in Pennsylvania we have a strong ‘yes’ bias on those kinds of questions on ballots. People see it… and just assume the best intent. So that’s another way we believe this process is really troubling.”

According to Spotlight PA, nearly 90 percent of proposed amendments since 1968 have been passed by PA voters, often in poorly attended, off-year elections.

Aside from the lack of public input and transparency, LWVPA and other good-government groups, such as the ACLU of Pennsylvania, have objected to lawmakers utilizing the state constitution as a way of advancing partisan goals.

“The constitution should be used to protect rights, and it should be longstanding issues, not issues of the moment. Those should be handled with legislation,” Gobreski said.

Pierce said that this is no way to legislate.

“In fact, they’re not legislating at all, because they’re using the constitution,” she said. “We really do see this as a gross misuse of power and a real threat to our democratic principles. This is not how laws should be made.”

Pennsylvania legislature, constitutional amendment


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