Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Baby steps toward reform

Reforming the Pennsylvania Legislature might be easier than we thought.

The Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform approved three changes in the way the Legislature conducts its business on Wednesday.

The biggest change backed by the bipartisan reform panel is the elimination of late-night (and early-morning) voting sessions. Believe it or not, the vote was unanimous. At this rate, we should have the Legislature cleaned up before spring.

The panel agreed that voting sessions should end by 11 p.m. This should bring an end to horrible decisions like the 2004 vote to legalize slots or the 2005 vote to raise their own pay or the 2006 vote to permit unlimited free drinks at Pennsylvania casinos. All of those votes took place after midnight.

Then again, maybe the 11 p.m. curfew won't make a difference. We're still dealing with the same brain-dead legislators. They'll just make bad decisions before 11 p.m. if the panel's recommendation is adopted by the full House.

The best quote from Wednesday's session came from panel member Tom Tangretti, a Democrat from Westmoreland County: "I honestly believe that there are many times in the past where we have been held here late into the night to wear members down."

The decision to vote only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. passed by a 24-0 margin on the 24-member reform commission and will probably sail through the full House in March. The state Senate already adopted a similar rule for its deliberations.

(The House panel did leave a loophole in its recommendation. The 8 a.m.-11 p.m. voting window can be waived under "exigent circumstances" with a three-quarters vote on the House floor.)

Recommendations to make it even tougher for the Legislature to hold votes when you least expect them failed to get the three-quarters support from each party that would send the recommendations to the full House.

A vote to prohibit Sunday sessions failed 7-17, and a proposal to end voting an hour earlier, at 10 p.m., was rejected 11-13. Eight Republicans supported the 10 p.m. measure, which shows you that the Republican members on the panel are more serious about reform than their Democratic counterparts.

The panel also debated several other reforms, but you’d have to get out your copy of Roberts Rules of Order to keep up with the parliamentary gymnastics.

For example, the panel voted to recommend that lawmakers who move to suspend the House rules be allowed to debate the merits of doing so — a procedure currently limited to party leaders.

The move is designed to give more power to the rank-and-file members, who are often kept out of the loop by party leaders until it's time to rubber-stamp legislation the bosses want passed.

The reform panel also suggested eliminating the practice of allowing amendments to bills to be tabled without tabling the entire piece of legislation.

The only "no" vote regarding that measure came from Rep. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, who has no business being on the reform commission.

Argall, the Republican whip in the House, a payjacker and longtime opponent of reform, was put on the panel to keep tabs on the other commission members for the GOP leadership.

So far, so good. But the panel's recommendations are baby steps on the road to reforming the House. We still have a long way to go.

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