High jinks in Harrisburg

The election for a new Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for the 2007-08 session was a very interesting drama with a surprise ending.

I felt it was my duty as Legislative Director for the ACLU of PA to closely watch the action. I went up to Harrisburg on January 2, 2006, not knowing what to expect. The makeup of the PA House was 102 Democrats to 101 Republicans. The Democratic candidate for Speaker was Bill DeWeese from Greene County. The Republican Candidate was John Perzel from Philadelphia. Perzel had served as Speaker for the last 3 and one-half years.

One Democrat, Tom Caltagirone from Berks County, had already made it clear that he would vote for Perzel to be Speaker. There were rumors about other Democrats who might vote for Perzel and Republicans who might abandon their party’s candidate. There was talk that some members might choose to not be present – to, in essence, abstain from voting. There were even rumblings about third candidate, but no names mentioned. It was far from clear who would be elected Speaker.

There was also tremendous uncertainty as to what any of this would mean for control of the legislative agenda and the scheduling of bills to be considered by Committees and by the full House. The Democrats had a very slim majority, but what did that really mean? There was much talk about reforming the legislative process – but who was going to be in charge of making sure that there was real reform and that it would be really followed?

At noon the House began its session. Members were sworn in and then the battle began. The first indication of what was to come was a motion by DeWeese to nominate Dennis O’Brien to be Speaker of the House. O’Brien is a Republican from Philadelphia who is described as a “moderate.” One of my colleagues characterized him as a Casey Democrat.

DeWeese’s procedural move was unexpected by most of the members (including many of his fellow Democrats). It also was premature since the House had not officially come to the point in the agenda when the election process was to begin. After some procedural wrangling, that process did start and DeWeese stood up and formally nominated O’Brien. That nomination was seconded by Dwight Evans, a Democrat from Philadelphia.

Then Perzel was nominated by Rick Geist, a Republican from Blair County. Perzel’s nomination was seconded by Katie True a Republican from Lancaster County. Then there was more procedural wrangling, as well as clapping and hissing, as Perzel attempted to give a speech seconding his own nomination even though it had already been seconded.

The situation got more interesting when the Republicans tried to nominate a couple of Democrats as candidates for Speaker. Each time the Democratic nominee got up and said he was gratified to be considered but declined the nomination.

So in the end there were just two candidates for Speaker and both were Republicans, even though the Democrats had the majority of the members of the PA House. When the vote was taken O’Brien had 105 votes, Perzel had 97 votes and the PA House had a new Speaker. Three Democrats voted for Perzel while six Republicans voted for O’Brien. At a press conference after the vote, O’Brien stated he was not changing parties.

So as of today, the PA House has a Republican Speaker but the Democrats are the majority party and will have considerable control over what legislation will be considered and when it will be considered. The new Speaker indicated that he was establishing a special bipartisan commission to come up with recommendations for new rules for the House and some reforms in the legislative process. So we may see some reform.

It is unclear what all of this means for civil liberties or for ACLU’s priorities and agenda in the coming two years. We know that we must work with members from both parties to advance our issues and that we must closely watch what our legislators do and the process they follow in order to best protect civil liberties in this state. And we intend to do that. I also promise that I will write more about what is happening in Harrisburg as the interesting and uncertain state of affairs becomes a whole lot clearer.

Larry Frankel, Legislative Director

1 thought on “High jinks in Harrisburg

  1. I am so confused. There’s so much here that does not seem to make sense, procedurally and/or politically. (Although, in instances such as these, there always seems to be an unseen hand working behind the scenes.)

    Specifically, who will control the legislative agenda? What will the Republican Speaker be able to do or not do with a Demcorat controlled House?

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