by Christen Smith
The gaping hole in the General Assembly’s session calendar notwithstanding, lawmakers continue delving into policy meetings this week as an outlet for their restlessness.
After a House Republican Policy Committee’s hearing on Monday about school funding concerns, lawmakers invoked their frustration with stalled legislative action and their colleagues across the aisle.
“It is time,” said Committee Chairman Joshua Kail, R-Beaver. “The House Republicans are here. We are ready to work and we have been ready to work and we continue to be ready to work.”
Kail ascended to chairman earlier this month and promptly convened two hearings to discuss three proposed constitutional amendments and ways to expand the state’s manufacturing sector.
The former came just days before House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Temple, adjourned the chamber for more than a month, dissolving all hope that the amendments would make it to the May primary ballot.
It was just the latest twist in an unprecedented breakdown of bipartisanship over operating rules that has prevented the House from introducing bills, convening hearings and scheduling votes since swearing-in day on Jan. 3.
Republicans cling to a functional one-seat majority until special elections scheduled for Feb. 7 will likely tip the scales back into the Democrats’ favor – and with it, control of the legislative calendar for the first time in more than a decade.
It’s a new dynamic legislative sources say Republicans can’t handle. During an interview with NBC Philadelphia over the weekend, House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, said the party lacks a “willingness to work” and an “ability to compromise.”
“We have not seen that yet,” she said. “Our door remains open. We want to work on rules together in a mature and productive way, but since that has not happened, the speaker had to make some decisions on his own to move the institution forward for all Pennsylvanians.”
Earlier this month, Rozzi said he was unwilling to convene session until Republicans agreed to pass an amendment that opens a two-year retroactive window for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse to sue their perpetrators in civil court. Senate Republicans packaged the amendment into a resolution with two others – voter ID and regulatory reform – that Democrats oppose.
Unwilling to unbundle the amendments – and unable to do so without any operating rules – the chamber came to a standstill last week as both sides have appeared to admit defeat, for now.
“The Democrats’ willingness to showcase their inaction proves they only care about power,” Kail said Monday. “From education reform to the proposed constitutional amendments, we must act swiftly on passing measures that people have been desperately asking for us to get across the finish line.”
In the meantime, Kail scheduled four more hearings through Feb. 21 that will cover rising energy costs, good government reforms, workforce development and public safety.
“We can’t move forward on any of these issues until we organize as a House and Democrats come back to work,” Kail said during a news conference following Monday’s hearing. “Until then we will be here [and] we will continue to be working.”
Standing beside Kail, House Education Committee Chairman Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, said despite the impasse, he and other Republicans will “hit the ground running.”
“What we can do is control what we can control and that is informing ourselves and informing the public of what our intentions are moving forward,” he said.
Halfway across the state, the House Democratic Policy Committee began a series of hearings last week in Allegheny County that focused on health care staffing challenges and wage theft through deliberate misclassification of employees. Two more hearings are scheduled this week in Pittsburgh about election reform and labor organizing.
This is in addition to Rozzi’s ongoing listening tour that seeks public input on how to break the gridlock in Harrisburg.
“It is my hope that at the conclusion of this tour we will have a clear idea on how best to heal the divides in Harrisburg, what a fair set of House rules should include, and a plan to finally get survivors of childhood sexual assault the justice and truth that they so desperately deserve,” he said.
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Christen joins The Center Square as its Pennsylvania News Editor and brings with her more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues from all angles. She’s a Pennsylvania State University alumna and has been published in the The Washington Examiner, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, RealClear and Broad+Liberty, among others.
Photo “Pennsylvania House Republican Policy Committee” by Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus.