HARRISBURG — The impeachment of the Philadelphia district attorney dominated the last scheduled voting day of the Pennsylvania House, but the legislature’s last vote before the recess, thrown in the shadow of such a momentous move, reflected the split between the ruling parties of the lower house just as before the next legislative period.
In the closing hour of the Nov. 16 session, Democrats and Republicans squabbled over two proposed rule changes specific to the House of Representatives.
One attempted to end members’ use of taxpayer-funded vehicles. The other sought to end the use of proxy voting and remote attendance at meetings and committee meetings.
All Republicans present and all but one Democrat in attendance voted 191 to 1 to change vehicle use and reimbursement. Nine members from both sides were on furlough and one seat is vacant following the death in October of Rep. Tony DeLuca, D-Allegheny.
This type of agreement was not in play for the second proposal. Voting on the party line carried out with a count of 109-83.
The votes on both came after an already lengthy and charged debate that ended with Larry Krasner being impeached for a similar number of votes.
Rules are adopted at the beginning of each biennial House Session and expire at the end of the session. Since members of the House of Representatives stand for election every two years, this format allows for input from new members. The current session ends on Wednesday 30 November.
Late changes could theoretically be undone in the following session, but the following session unfolds like no other.
The Democrats won the majority in the midterms. But they have three vacancies: Deluca, Rep. Austin Davis, who won the lieutenant governor’s election, and Rep. Summer Lee, who was elected to the US Congress.
In the best-case scenario for House Democrats, they could be stuck with Republicans at 101-101 on Jan. 3, given the timing and circumstances.
More likely, the split that day will favor Republicans, 101-100, with Lee being sworn into Congress at the same hour and Davis eligible to remain in the House until he becomes Lieutenant Governor on January 17.
That not only gives Republicans a majority position to choose the next House Speaker, whose role includes setting the dates of special elections needed to fill the three vacancies, but also to vote to pass new rules and for others Initiatives such as an upcoming five-pack of constitutional amendments.
The proposed amendments affect abortion rights, voter identification, regulatory oversight, electoral scrutiny and make the office of lieutenant governor an appointed position. If passed in January – the package went through the House and Senate last summer and cannot be rejected by the governor – voters can expect to have a say in the May primary.
Republicans should fall into the minority position sometime in 2023, and the new rules could be changed with Democrats in the majority, but perhaps only after the GOP achieves legislative victories, which would be unlikely if all seats were filled.
The loss of proxy voting and remote participation could affect majority voting at any time, regardless of which party has majority control because the margin is so small.
R-Centre/Mifflin MP Kerry Benninghoff, who did not seek re-election as his party’s group leader next year, offered the two proposals in a single resolution. The resolution was reportedly proposed about an hour before the vote.
After debate and a motion by Democratic Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, they were split for split votes with some Republican opposition.
Benninghoff argued that the rule should always be temporary and that as people are encouraged to return to work with the COVID-19 pandemic entering its third year, the same should apply to members of the House of Representatives.
“This chamber lasted and functioned for hundreds of years before there was anything like remote voting. It wasn’t made for someone running for two offices,” Benninghoff said, his remarks aimed at Lee and Davis. “It was meant in case someone was ill.”
Democrats saw the proposal as something else — a measure to rig control and create a straw man argument by marrying the voting rule to that of the vehicle rule.
McClinton and Democratic Rep. Matt Bradford, party chair of the Appropriations Committee, argued that doing away with remote participation and proxy voting forces members to risk their own health and that of others to turn up to vote in person, even if they are ill feel.
“We are undermining our members’ ability to represent their constituents when we don’t have proxy voting, when we don’t have the ability to vote remotely, especially as we’re still in a global pandemic,” McClinton said.
Her remarks came after learning that at least two members of the House of Representatives had tested positive for COVID-19, the results of which were shared with members during the debate.
Bradford described the move as strategic and insignificant.
“There is no other reason to do this,” Bradford said. “It’s so cynical, it’s so obvious, it’s so clear that those who would never give up power are struggling mightily with the new reality.”