Much ado about rules: Cutler tackles sexual harassment, amendment filibusters in rule changes

Much ado about rules: Cutler tackles sexual harassment, amendment filibusters in rule changes

Author: Stephen Caruso/Tuesday, January 1, 2019/Categories: News and Views

Newly minted House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) pushed through a slew of rule changes on his first day as floor leader Jan. 1, the largest since the bipartisan rules reform commission just over a decade ago.

“If you’ve followed me in anyway, I tend to shoot big,” he said.

Among the changes include a revised policy on sexual harassment discipline for members, a new committee with subpoena power over the executive branch, and a ban on so-called ghost amendments, a loophole which let members tack hundreds of amendments onto bills to effectively kill the legislation.

The changes were developed by Cutler based off of older proposals, and some of them with the cooperation of House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny).

This year brought especially keen interest in the chamber’s rules, as activists for the redistricting advocacy group Fair Districts PA stood throughout the building, handing out flyers suggesting a slew of changes to loosen the authority of committee chairs and make the process more open to rank-and-file members.

“Our representatives ought to have the right to represent us,” Carol Kuniholm, executive director of the organization, said.

Cutler said he engaged with some of the reform groups while crafting the new rules, which led to a few changes such as the ban on ghost amendments.

With them, members can request that the Legislative Reference Bureau reserve amendments for a bill as amended. Now, members must be able to identify the underlying amendment before piling their edits onto a bill.

The rule changes also push the filing deadline back an hour.

Leadership is hoping the tweak could prevent the hundreds of amendments that blocked consideration of last year’s redistricting bill or of severance tax legislation.

The change is minor, and Cutler expressed preference for instead letting leadership table amendments without tabling the bill itself on the floor.

However, that rule, adopted in 2007, had virtue to ensure every member’s language could get a fair shake. And former Rep. Dave Steil (R-Bucks), who served on the rules reform commission, didn’t have much sympathy for members who didn’t want to clean up their own legislative mess.

“Multiple amendments do not block a bill, but does make it more difficult to work through, hence the desire to change the rule regarding amendments,” Steil said in an email. “More work for legislators is what they get paid to do.”

Another change was made to address growing anger around sexual misconduct in the capitol. The new rules task the House Ethics Committee with investigating allegations against members before issuing a final report and allowing for the body to discipline the member as needed.

The changes had been discussed for months between the caucuses. Previously, internal caucus policies handled sexual harassment by representatives.

Records of the committee's sexual harassment investigations would be kept confidential, but the final report and any consent agreement would be made public. The complainant's name and details that could lead to their identification could also be redacted at their request.

The new rule would only govern sexual harassment by sitting House members. It would not cover caucus staff.

The change comes on the heels of two lawmakers, former Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R-Delaware) and Rep. Tom Caltagirone (D-Berks), getting accused of harassment. In Miccarelli’s case, one of the victims was fellow Rep. Tarah Toohil (R-Luzerne).

Both resisted calls to resign, but Miccarelli did not run for reelection last cycle.

Legislation to revise reporting procedures amid the #MeToo movement never advanced out of the House Labor and Industry Committee last session, despite the vocal lobbying of Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky (D-Delaware).

Her bill, HB 1965, would ban non-disclosure agreements and the use of taxpayer money in settlements, require paid leave for victims and reform investigation and reporting procedures among other things.

Republicans claimed Krueger-Braneky turned the issue into a partisan cudgel and so passed on supporting it. Instead, the majority caucus passed legislation, HR 828 and 829, to study the state’s current sexual harassment laws and examples within the capitol itself.

The changes also include a new committee, the House Government Oversight Committee, made up of nine members — five from the majority and four from the minority, all appointed by the floor leaders.

The committee has subpoena power, and would be charged with providing oversight to the executive branch and the state’s regulatory agencies.

Cutler portrayed it as a chance to hold the administration accountable when “we passed a law that said A, B and C, but the regulations do one, two and three.”

The reports would then be issued back to the standing committee on the subject matter.

The General Assembly and Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration have butted heads on oversight before, such as the state’s medical marijuana program’s licensing.

In an email, JJ Abbott, spokesperson for Wolf, said he hoped that “today’s actions do not reflect a desire to abandon bipartisanship in the House.”

“Governor 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,” Abbott said.

In light of the guilty verdict against former Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, the rules also provide for an immediate consideration of expulsion of a member found guilty of corruption.

The rules also lowered the number of committee members by one from both the majority and minority, as well as lowered the number of majority votes to report a bill from 12 to 11.

Finally, they created two new subcommittees: In Finance, a new one on Tax Modernization and Reform, and under Commerce, on Automation and Technology.

The changes overall passed the House by a bipartisan margin, but the process still bothered some members as too rushed. They bucked against keeping the rules unamendable on the floor, and to vote on them later after the members had more time to study them.

“This is a terrible thing, to try and jam this through on swearing-in day,” Rep. Steve Samuelson (D-Northampton) said.

Samuelson tried to rally members against the rules on the floor, but the attempt fell short in a party line vote.

However, Cutler expressed openness to more edits to the rules over the course of session.

“We’ll look at changes as they come,” he said.

Stephen Caruso is the Harrisburg bureau chief at The PLS Reporter. Have a question, comment or tip? Email him at stephen@mypls.com or call at 845-891-4306.

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