EDITORIAL: Be wary of new panel
A healthy skepticism is a good thing.
That is why Pennsylvania Democrats are right to be wary about the recently approved House Government Oversight Committee.
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.
It never saw a floor vote, but 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 public input: No input from the public was involved. That fact, alone, is reason for concern. The public deserved to have their say in the debate over whether the committee was necessary.
After all, the state Legislature has long had oversight powers. Dating back to 1843, the Legislature had the ability to issue subpoenas to force anyone to testify before the chambers. That power was previously limited to the Appropriations Committee and the Ethics Committee. Now those powers have been condensed into a single entity.
Democratic skepticism: 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."
A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf also said he hoped the new committee doesn’t turn into a partisan power play.
Information hard to get: Grove, for his part, said getting information from recent administrations, both Democrat (Wolf) and Republican (Tom Corbett), has been difficult. He said Right-to-Know Law requests were often needed to get answers for appropriations-related questions.
"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."
Why wasn't committee needed during Corbett administration? Grove has a point, but the oversight committee wasn’t approved until there was a Democratic governor.
That’s curious. Why wasn’t it approved when Corbett was running the show? Probably because Corbett was a Republican and the Republicans controlled both chambers. For Republicans, oversight apparently wasn’t much of a priority back then.
Oversight part of checks and balances: No one is denying that the Legislature has oversight duties over the governor and his administration.
Grove is right when he says: "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."
If the Republicans use this committee as intended, for Legislative oversight, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it. Grove vows the committee “solely has to do with checks and balances.”
We’ll take him at his word.
Committee could become a partisan hammer: Still, there is no denying that the oversight committee has the potential to become a political hammer that Republican legislators can use to constantly bash the Wolf administration for purely partisan reasons.
Legislative oversight is perfectly fine. Political overreach certainly is not.
That’s why we should all watch carefully to see which path our Republican House members will follow.