OP-ED: New Pa. House rules tackle reforms

State Rep. Bryan Cutler
Lancaster County
FILE - This Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, file photo shows the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

At a time when our country is experiencing arguably the most politically polarizing era in our modern history, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives wasted little time passing new rules within the first minutes of this legislative session.

These rules were not written in the dark corner of a lobbyist’s office far from the halls of the state Capitol, and they were not written with input from only one side of the political aisle. Just like every session since I was first elected, the rules are the same as the previous session but updated with improvements suggested by members and leaders of both parties to ensure your state government is working efficiently and effectively.

Leadership from both the majority and minority parties were involved in the writing process.

As the leader of the Republican Caucus, I shared the rules with my fellow members in the weeks leading up to the start of the session, making sure they had ample time to make an informed and educated vote. I cannot speak for how, or when, the minority leader shared the rule changes with his caucus members.

Our new operating rules make a number of important changes to promote efficiency, take on institutional problems, and finally adopt other important reforms.

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

More:Smucker attends Trump meeting, introduces bill to prevent future government shutdowns

For example, the new rules set clear guidelines regarding member conduct and the consequences of misbehavior. We improved handling of sexual harassment complaints and outlined a zero-tolerance policy if a member is convicted of a crime.

Another improvement is that legislation will be considered in a timelier fashion. We eliminated one of the most abused practices in the House — “ghost amendments” — which was a tool used to obstruct the work of the Legislature.

We also established a new Government Oversight Committee, which further enhances the responsibility of lawmakers to ensure the executive branch agencies are doing what they are supposed to be doing, one of the General Assembly’s constitutional duties. 

In fact, it was the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that said, “The power to investigate is an essential corollary of the power to legislate. The scope of this power of inquiry extends to every proper subject of legislative action.”

State Rep. Bryan Cutler

As I said in my remarks on the House floor, it was important to both sides of the aisle to get the rules done in the first session day. Otherwise, vital House business would have been delayed, including appointing members of committees.

House committee membership cannot be decided until the rules are in place, so if we had waited until mid-, or late January to adopt the rules, as was suggested by some people both in and outside of our chamber, the work of committees would have been delayed, thus further slowing down the process for all pieces of legislation.

Legislative committees vet complex proposed legislation and are essential to the legislative process — going all the way back to 1787 when 55 American politicians working out of the Pennsylvania State House formed two committees — the Committee of Detail and Committee of Style – which produced the United States Constitution.

Some critics want every bill introduced to have a full hearing, or they want to bypass the issue-vetting system to allow some bills automatic House votes — without even the chance to make improvements through amendments.

These ideas, while on their face seem like fair-minded concepts, were floated elsewhere too. For good reason they were rejected in all but five states because legislatures nationwide understand these proposals would further polarize things and allow the weaponization of hearings and floor votes.

Each independently elected member of the House has the right and responsibility to represent their constituents. They can draft and introduce bills and amendments to other bills, and they can ultimately vote.  Some bills or amendments pass … and some fail. The decision of what passes or doesn’t is the collective will of the House.

The rules preserve and promote this basic representative and democratic system that is enshrined in our Constitution.

It was with these and other factors in mind that a bipartisan majority of our members, from across our Commonwealth, voted to approve these rules so we can continue to take up the important work we have been elected to do.

— State Rep. Bryan Cutler, a Republican representing the 100th District in Lancaster County, is the House majority leader.