EDITORIAL: Lessons to be learned from Pa. Senate brawl

York Dispatch Editorial Board

There was little for anyone to be proud of in the Pennsylvania statehouse last Wednesday: Not Republican senators, whose attempts to bully though a benefits-cutting measure were crass, craven and cruel; not Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who let the proceedings run off the rails; and especially not Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, whose efforts to shout down a fellow lawmaker were as churlish and childish a display as are likely to be found among elected officials.

The tawdry proceedings centered around Republican efforts to end the state’s decades-old General Assistance program, which provides monthly cash assistance of about $200 to some of Pennsylvania’s neediest citizens. Republicans have long targeted the program, which Gov. Tom Wolf’s office estimates would help more than 10,000 state residents next year at a cost of approximately $24 million (about 0.07 percent of the state’s $34 billion budget).

Minority Democrats attempted to attach amendments to the bill to carve out continued support for certain recipients — military veterans, domestic-abuse survivors, people with disabilities and the like.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman speaks during his statewide listening tour Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Fetterman is holding a series of town hall meetings to hear residents' opinions on legalized recreational marijuana. Over 200 attended the event at DeMeester Recital Hall at York College. Bill Kalina photo

That Republicans were less than receptive to these amendments did not come as a surprise. But much of what followed did.

First, Corman put forth a motion to block Democrats from offering the amendments. When Democrat Fetterman, who presides in the Senate, essentially called time out and left the rostrum to confer with Republicans, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, orchestrated what Fetterman later termed a hostile takeover.

“With the rostrum empty, Scarnati — who typically runs the floor when the lieutenant governor is absent — grabbed the gavel, called the chamber back to session and asked for a vote on Corman’s motion,” reported PennLive. “As a clerk began the roll call, Democrats stormed off the floor.”

They eventually returned, but Fetterman refused to allow the vote on Corman’s motion, instead recognizing state Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery County, a leader in the fight to maintain General Assistance. She then read a letter from a beneficiary of the program — although it was difficult to hear.

For almost the full three minutes she spoke, Corman voiced his displeasure from the floor. Loudly.

“You need to do your job, Mr. President,” Corman shouted at Fetterman, who continued to acknowledge Muth. “Bring the chamber to order, Mr. President. It’s not a partisan job. You need to follow the rules.”

It was a quite a dispiriting display. And one that must not be repeated.

First thing’s first: Corman, whose 34th District includes Centre, Mifflin and Juniata counties and part of Huntingdon County, owes Muth an apology.

Whether the GOP leader was technically correct that the vote on his motion should have been called, the manner in which Scarnati hustled it before the body was, at the very least, underhanded. The spectacle of a veteran white male lawmaker bellowing over a freshman female counterpart was unsettling and, frankly, unbelievable. A 20-year veteran of the Senate should know better than to behave in a manner so belligerent, aggressive and flat-out rude.

Second: Fetterman, who is in the midst of his first go-around running the Senate, needs to better acquaint himself with parliamentary procedure. All matters before the Senate must be handled by the book. In overseeing Senate proceedings, Fetterman cannot act in a partisan manner. But it is clear majority Republicans can and will if given an opening.

The measure to end the program was eventually approved, 26-24. Two Republicans joined Democrats on the losing side.

Also on the losing side that day: Decorum, professionalism and respect.

When it comes to debating, amending and voting on legislation in the Pennsylvania State Senate, all sides can and must do better.