Testimony on Rules Reform and Bipartisanship
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Testimony on Rules Reform and Bipartisanship

Testimony on Rules Reform and Bipartisanship
Speaker's Workgroup Listening Tour
January 27, 2023

Speaker Rozzi and Members of the Workgroup to Move Pennsylvania Forward:

My name is Pat Christmas, Chief Policy Officer for the Committee of Seventy, nonpartisan nonprofit with bipartisan support, which has promoted representative, ethical and effective government in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania for more than a century. We are deeply appreciative of your willingness to explore the most effective means of forging a bipartisan path forward amid circumstances that, while challenging, also create a promising opportunity for making positive and lasting change in the Pennsylvania House.

There is no question that certain reforms to the House’s General Operating Rules are a significant part of the solution. But so will a renewed commitment to building relationships and trust across the aisle. A more collaborative culture—difficult though that may be to envision—will stand a better chance of producing outcomes that appeal to the broadest swath of Pennsylvanians and improve their quality of life.

Priority Rules Changes to Encourage Bipartisanship

The Bipartisan Policy Center and FairVote issued in 2015 a comprehensive report that outlines a set of procedures and practices designed to “democratize” the legislative agenda and encourage bipartisanship among rank-and-file members. While each best practice in the report warrants consideration, Seventy urges the workgroup to consider the following rules that empower bipartisan majorities to move legislation that might otherwise be blocked and ensure fair partisan representation on committees. The Fix Harrisburg campaign has promoted these reforms and others since launching a year ago.

  • Discharge Petition: The current discharge mechanism articulated in Rule 53 should be reformed to a) require the commitment of an equal number of members from both parties; and b) require that the bill or resolution being discharged is reported to the floor for first, second and third consideration within a set period of time. There should be no ability to short circuit the discharged legislation by re-referring to another committee.

  • Bipartisan Legislation: Any bill or resolution that garners a minimum number of cosponsors from each party (Fix Harrisburg recommends 20) should receive a vote in committee and come up for first, second and third consideration within a set period of time. Similarly, legislation passed in the Senate with at least a two-thirds vote of each caucus should receive committee and floor votes in the House.

  • Committee Composition: Party representation on all committees should be proportional to the partisan makeup of the chamber as a whole. Given the extremely close margin between the parties this session, consideration should be given to each party having a one-seat majority on approximately half of the standing committees.

  • Committee Leadership: Allow committee members to elect chairs and vice chairs, requiring that each be of different parties.

While it’s important that a fair and bipartisan-oriented rules package be adopted as swiftly as possible to open the House for business, this need not be the only time for thoughtful consideration of reforms to the chamber’s procedures. Former Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks) in 2019 introduced House Resolution 11 to create a special committee to study the rules and produce a report with recommendations for proposed revisions. Such a committee could be formed not only to explore further procedural change but also consider and recommend programmatic endeavors that would foster stronger relationships, civility and trust.

Building Relationships and a Culture of Collaboration

Although certain legislative rules have been proven to have a demonstrable impact on bipartisan policy making in state capitals across the country, rules reform cannot guarantee positive outcomes on its own. The building and maintenance of relationships among lawmakers within and between their partisan caucuses is also essential. Such relationships engender the trust and civility that allows for individuals with different life experiences, ideologies and viewpoints to sit across from each other and work to find common ground, acknowledge points of disagreement and, where necessary, compromise to make forward progress on a given issue.

Today’s environment, admittedly, does not encourage such relationships; instead, hyperpartisan conflict has been a powerful force against them. Political polarization among voters and their elected representatives has risen significantly for at least 30 years. Through the 2000s, this polarization was further amplified by a variety of factors including the advent of social media and political commentary on cable television, ushering voters into partisan or ideological silos while elevating the most extreme perspectives and provocative actors. Addressing these issues is beyond the scope of this discussion, but this context bolsters the case for committing to and investing in programs that create opportunities to develop relationships and a culture of collaboration not only between public officials of different parties but those with different geographies and backgrounds.

The Capitol All-Stars softball game is a perfect example of a simple exercise that brings together—and integrates within teams—lawmakers from both parties, even if temporarily. As one party leader noted, the game “is a great reminder to all of us why we ran for office in the first place,” while another called it “a rare and welcome moment of unity.” Why must these moments be so rare?

Other examples of similar programming that could be adopted include:

  • Having new legislators travel together on a tour of the state to hear from constituents and stakeholders about the variety of issues of concern in their area.

  • Exchanging staff—and/or legislators themselves—between district offices for a day to spend time in a different community and interact with constituents.

  • Organized retreats for members and leaders to various parts of the state or around specific issue areas. Even trips to other states could be worth the investment if designed to create opportunities for bipartisan problem-solving.

Some lawmakers proactively visit colleagues in their home districts, have family outings or enjoy a meal without any organized program or event. But for the House to incorporate these opportunities into the regular schedule of both rank-and-file and senior members should pay dividends not only for bipartisan policy making but a more positive experience in being an elected official.

Similar efforts have also been undertaken by members of the PA One Caucus, which launched with the goal of bridging the partisan divide in the heated aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. The sixteen founding members focused both on reestablishing trust and addressing supposedly low-hanging fruit in consolidation of functions in the state House that are needlessly segregated by party. Few things could be less partisan or political than printing, IT, and basic procurement and HR services. We encourage you to look to the past work of the PA One Caucus as well as their insights on rules reform.

Fostering Bipartisanship Inside and Out

Incentivizing bipartisanship internally through rules reform and programs that bring together representatives apart from the contests in lawmaking will have an impact. But once the House is reopened, outside forces will often be pushing you and your colleagues intensely in opposite directions. Policy that can mitigate political polarization and hyperpartisanship among voters and stakeholders will also be paramount in the long term.

Repealing closed primaries and allowing the nearly one million independent voters unaffiliated with any political party should be part of the solution. Basic civics education and media literacy in our schools should be part of the solution. Supporting local journalism, especially in areas of the state where newspapers have wound down, should be part of the solution. But so could numerous other policies, programs or investments. 

The Committee of Seventy would strongly support a more expansive effort to address these issues and in the Speaker’s words “heal the divides.” They won’t heal themselves.

Thank you again for your commitment to the House as an institution and the people of Pennsylvania.

Pat Christmas
Chief Policy Officer
Committee of Seventy

The Committee of Seventy is a nonpartisan civic leadership organization that advances representative, ethical and effective government in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania through citizen engagement and public policy advocacy.