House Democrats fight to increase transparency and accountability, make sure the people come first

HARRISBURG, Jan. 4 – A group of 10 House Democrats announced the introduction of changes to the Operating Rules of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to reduce the impact of partisan politics, make sure ideas with broad public support get a fair hearing, and restore the people’s faith in government after the damage done by extremists in Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg.

The People Before Politics plan was crafted with this central idea: lawmakers work for the people, not the other way around. It focuses on openness, transparency and citizen control of the legislative process. 

The People Before Politics plan includes the following proposals:

Amendment 1 – The Voice of the People, sponsored by Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Phila. This amendment would make sure each House member has an opportunity to speak at a designated time during the first full session day of the week on any topic, similar to how the U.S. House of Representatives allows members to speak. This change would end the requirement of “unanimous consent” so often abused by extremists to silence members and prevent legislative topics bottled up in committee from being heard by the people.

Amendment 2 – Let the People See, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer O’Mara, D-Delaware. This amendment would restore the rule requiring a full 24 hours before final passage of any bill, including all bills amended in the House chamber or in committee, or sent over from the state Senate for a House concurrence vote after changes were made. Even in a nonstop news cycle like today’s, the people need more than the current three hours to be informed and should be given a chance to have input on major changes to bills impacting the state. 

Amendment 3 – Bipartisan Support Demands an Open Vote, sponsored by Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton. This amendment would guarantee that any proposed legislation sponsored by more than the 102 members required to pass a bill in the House -- including at least 20 co-sponsors from each party -- get a guaranteed up-or-down vote in the House. This change would prevent an individual leader or committee chair from bottling up bills that are clearly a top priority for the people. 

Amendment 4 – Play by the Rules, sponsored by Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Phila. This amendment would end the current requirement that all bills during a certain time period every year – normally around the budget deadline – be sent to the House Rules Committee before being sent to the full House for final debate, which puts far too much power in the hands of a few House leaders when important legislation that affects every single citizen is being considered. This change would reduce the control the majority leader has over bills and allow members to move bills without one person stopping them. 

Amendment 5 – Committees Should Look Like the House, sponsored by Rep. Joe Webster, D-Montgomery. This amendment would make sure the standing committees of the House – the places where introduced bills go for intensive study and debate before being sent for consideration by the full House – better represent the makeup of the actual House instead of being so heavily weighted by partisanship. This change would still preserve the Republican majority in committees, but by a majority more reflective of the larger body.  

Amendment 6 – Ending Surprise Meetings, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Phila. This amendment would prevent House standing committee chairs from calling voting meetings of committees with little to no notice, which has been done in the past to prevent committee members from having the time required to file amendments or even prepare questions for debate. This change would ensure the people can be informed and lawmakers can be fully prepared to debate vital legislation. 

Amendment 7 – No More Moving Targets for Legislation, sponsored by Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Northampton. This amendment would end the practice of legislative leaders sidestepping debate and an open vote on proposals they oppose by sending a bill ready for passage to a different committee. This practice is most used when the minority attempts to force legislation that is being bottled up in committee to the full House for debate and a vote – the majority party will simply vote to send the bill to a different committee to slow down and even halt its progress. This change would end this practice and require open votes. 

Amendment 8 – Protect the Right to Debate, sponsored by Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware. This amendment would change the current requirement of a simple majority vote to revert to the previous question – that is, to end any attempt to amend a bill and to end all debate and force an immediate vote. This change would still allow such a move but would require a two-thirds supermajority of the House – 136 members versus the current 102 – to approve so any such move would need a true bipartisan consensus. 

Amendment 9 – Let the People Speak on Constitutional Changes, sponsored by Rep. Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery. This amendment would require any potential constitutional question placed on the ballot to come with a full public hearing. This change would improve transparency and allow the people to comment and get more information before being asked to alter the state constitution. 

Amendment 10 – Hear Both Sides, sponsored by Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster. This amendment would require time for both parties to invite testifiers, experts and citizens to discuss legislation in committee before a vote. This change would make sure committee members hear input from all sides of an issue and prevent a partisan extremist from denying a fair hearing on legislation. 

Amendment 11 – Giving the Majority of Members Final Say, Not a Few Leaders, sponsored by Rep. Pam DeLissio, D-Montgomery/Phila. Under current practice, the chairs of the Appropriations and Rules committees have the final say on the language of bills, not a majority of the House. This change would empower the House by ensuring that the entire House always has the last opportunity to amend a bill, not leadership.

The sponsors will be offering these proposals as the House of Representatives begins the 2021-22 legislative session this week.