Pa. House's new committee with powers to investigate administration provokes Dem skepticism

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
State Rep. Seth Grove, (R) sits with the York Dispatch editorial board for a discussion about taxes and the state budget. Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. Grove is leading a move to privatize the state liquor industry. John A. Pavoncello photo

State Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, proposed legislation last year that would have created committees in both chambers to keep tabs on the Democratic administration — as well as allow them to investigate and subpoena its members. 

Although it never saw a floor vote, thanks to a section in the biannual operational rules that the House passed 142-58 on Tuesday, Jan. 1, his proposal came to life in at least one of the chambers.

Grove floated the House Government Oversight Committee to party leadership before the session began, and they later implemented the measure into the operational rules that are voted upon every two years. No input from the public was involved.

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Purpose of committee: "The goal is to try to create a culture of oversight," Grove said. "Oversight is a responsibility of the General Assembly, regardless of whose party is in control of the branches. It's a part of the checks and balances system."

The basis for legislative subpoena powers in Pennsylvania dates back to Act 19 of 1843, which gave the Legislature the ability to issue subpoenas to force anyone to testify before the chambers.

As a result, both chambers could issue subpoenas in regard to "any part of the commonwealth," and those who refuse to testify can be imprisoned or given a misdemeanor for "Contempt of the General Assembly."

But House rules previously limited that power to the Appropriations Committee — which Grove served on last session — and the Ethics Committee. Now such powers have been condensed into one entity, Grove said.

The U.S Congress and some states already have such committees, including the South Carolina House, whose chairman, Republican Rep. Weston J. Newton, won an award last year because of the committee's work and inspired Grove's legislation.

Grove said his discontent with the administration mostly stems from him having to submit Right-to-Know Law requests, specifically for appropriations-related questions— a problem he said also was prevalent when former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, was in office.

"There is a lot of frustration with the administration not supplying information," Grove said. "But the purpose of subpoena power isn't to issue subpoenas. It's kind of a hammer. And it's absolutely not outside the House's duties."

Democratic skepticism: Some Democrats are skeptical of the committee, voicing concern about its intentions and subpoena powers.

Gov. Tom Wolf spokesman JJ Abbott said the governor hopes the measure won't result in the House targeting the administration for partisan play.

 "We hope the House Republicans’ actions do not reflect a desire to abandon bipartisanship in the House," Abbott said. "Gov. Wolf has made bringing trust back to state government a top priority. Given the House majority’s actions, he hopes they will next take up ethics reform, such as imposing a gift ban and requiring receipts for taxpayer-funded expenses, to follow the lead of the Executive Branch."

Bill Patton, spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus, said that although 32 Democrats voted for the measure and its precedent to create committees through operational rules, the party was largely against the committee's creation.

"Most Democrats weren't convinced that this additional committee is even needed," Patton said. "The established committees already have purview over just about every part of state government."

Patton disagreed with the sentiment that the Wolf administration has lacked any sort of transparency, but he said he's confident Republicans won't use the committee for partisan play. 

"It's a question of motivation," Patton said. "But we believe the Republicans will operate this committee the way it's intended to be rather than political fishing expeditions. We'll continue to work with them in a bipartisan way."

York City Fire Chief David Michaels, right, looks on as Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announces $55.1 Million funding for Pennsylvania volunteer firefighters' relief associations prior to a tour of York County Fire School in Manchester Township, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said he wouldn't speculate on the committee's intentions, as it's still early, but he did say he'd support the committee if its goal is to enhance cooperation between the two sectors of government.

"If it's a way to exchange information and ideas, those types of discussions are always good," DePasquale said. "Hopefully that's the goal at the end of the day, as we work for the same people. But it's up to them what they're going to do."

Separation of powers: But he also said the Wolf administration "has been the most transparent in history," and the separation of powers might conflict with the committee's intentions.

"The Legislature legislates, and the executive branch runs the state agencies," he said. "That's traditionally how separation of powers work. The General Assembly shouldn't be handling executive functions, just like my office can't pass a bill. We're going to have to see how this plays out."

Grove said such talk shows someone "obviously don't know anything about the separation of powers," as the committee solely has to do with checks and balances.

Director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College Dr. G. Terry Madonna leads a political discussion, 2016: Presidential Politics in the Nation and State, at Yorktowne Hotel in York City, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016.

G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said it's not that such a committee shouldn't be made and exercise its powers but that it should have been discussed more publicly.

"When you have something with the potential to assume considerable power, then it would've been wiser to have more discussion in the Legislature and give the citizens of the state an opportunity to weigh in," Madonna said.

Although it's "unavoidable" that people may think it is a partisan move against the administration, he said, it's too early to make any assumptions. 

Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, said "oversight is always a good thing,"  but she voted against the operational rules because she and other legislators didn't have enough time to analyze their contents.

Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton County, tried to postpone the vote until Jan. 14, but the House voted down the measure 110-90. 

"I really don't know a whole lot about (the committee)," Hill-Evans said. "There's so much legislation, and I didn't get a chance to review it the way I would've liked to review it."

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.