Stranded legislation: Pa. lawmakers in both chambers lament lack of consensus

Bipartisan bills passed between the Democratic-controlled House and GOP-controlled Senate have languished without action this session

By: - November 29, 2023 6:00 pm

The Capitol building in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo)

State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) had introduced the Fairness Act, to extend Pennsylvania’s anti-discrimination law to LGBTQ+ people, in every legislative session since 2001 before it passed in the state House this spring.

Five months after lawmakers sent House Bill 300 to the Republican-controlled Senate with a bipartisan 102-98 vote, the historic legislation remains on the Senate State Government Committee’s docket waiting for a vote.

That’s the trajectory several pieces of progressive bipartisan legislation have followed in the first year that Democrats have held a majority in the state House in more than a decade.

Since February, the House has passed legislation to increase Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, prevent gun suicide, require background checks to buy rifles and shotguns, set minimum staffing levels in hospitals to ensure patient safety, extend occupational health and safety protection to public sector workers, and provide a cost-of-living adjustment to octogenarian retirees who receive a pension from the state.

Those bills, and more, remain untouched in Senate committees with only three voting session days before the winter recess. Progressive Democrats say their frustration in being unable to get legislation that would have substantial and immediate impacts on people’s lives could further motivate voters next year when the House and half of the Senate are up for reelection.

“We’re a humble majority, but we’ve been a pretty productive majority advancing the types of proposals that answer the urgent needs of real people,” state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia) said, echoing Majority Leader Matt Bradford’s (D-Montgomery) description of the Democrats’ razor-thin 102-101 command of the House.

“The idea that we have to keep waiting for Republicans to get in line with where public opinion is, is incredibly frustrating,”  said Kenyatta, who is running for auditor general and would leave a vacancy in the House if he wins.

House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) has often described the Democratic majority’s approach to legislating as “governing for the next election,” but Kenyatta said the resistance of Republican leadership to advancing popular legislation is a capitulation to an extreme minority in their own party.

“If anybody is governing toward the next election or voting toward the next election I would say many of my Republican colleagues are governing toward the ultra-MAGA base,” Kenyatta said.

Political strategist Dan Fee said recent elections, such as the string of referendums across the country in favor of abortion rights, have shown that voters increasingly are rejecting extreme conservative positions. Calling attention to such positions or to blockades of popular legislation can be an effective electoral strategy, he said.

What it comes down to is evidence that one chamber is getting things done and one chamber is holding things up.

– Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-Allegheny)

While it’s unlikely, Fee said, that House Democrats have the electoral chances of the other chamber in mind as they advance their agenda, the General Assembly’s votes or lack of action on issues that are important to the fabric of society have consequences at the polls.

“Legislatures are there to propose bills, hold votes,” Fee said. “If you think they’re important and the public cares, vote on them. Put them up or vote them up or down.”

Failing to hold votes on measures that voters care about to preserve their conservative credibility could be a liability for Republicans, Democrats said.

“What it comes down to is evidence that one chamber is getting things done and one chamber is holding things up,” Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-Allegheny) said.

Republicans note that inattention to popular bills passed from one chamber to the other cuts both ways, pointing to a list of bipartisan Senate bills that have been sitting in House committees for months.

“We have certainly sent a number of bills to the House that I would argue actually demonstrated a broad bipartisan approach to things that are important, only to see those not acted on,” Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-Indiana) said.

Republicans have reached out to cooperate with House Democrats on legislation that increased government payments for emergency medical services, nursing homes and hospitals, and increased property tax and rent rebates for low-income seniors, Pittman noted.

“We’ve been able to make a lot of progress on some of the more basic governmental operations that really all Pennsylvanians care about regardless of their party affiliation,” he said.

And the Senate has worked with lawmakers on both sides to build broader bipartisan support for many of the bills it has sent to the House, Pittman said. 

He pointed to legislation that would provide for the automatic return of unclaimed property, guarantee energy choices for consumers, require financial literacy education in schools, provide fentanyl testing in hospitals, and outlaw safe injection sites for opioid users, which all passed with 40 or more votes in the Senate. None have advanced beyond House committees.

The safe injection site bill was introduced by Philadelphia Democrat Sen. Christine Tartaglione.

Pa. Senate votes to ban supervised injection sites 

“Obviously, it’s a bill that even though we’re a Republican majority, we support a Democratic colleague who feels that this is a significant priority for her community,” Pittman said.

Rep. Tom Mehaffie (R-Dauphin), who was the prime sponsor of the Patient Safety Act, said although he’s frustrated with the Senate’s inaction on his bill, he remains hopeful that he will be able to work out a deal to get his legislation to Gov. Josh Shapiro’s desk for the wellbeing of hospital workers and their patients. 

He characterized the standoff that has stalled the bill, which passed the House with the support of 19 Republicans, as the hospitals of Pennsylvania versus the nurses they employ.

“Right now the work environment is not a good environment. If the hospitals can’t figure that out we have to help them,” Mehaffie said.

But Mehaffie said legislators who are willing to work in a bipartisan fashion find themselves frustrated by a failure of the consensus-building process that has been the backbone of legislating for centuries.

“That’s a failure of government at all levels. We get in our corners and we don’t want to come out,” he said.

While Republicans controlled the House for 12 years before the current session, the GOP has had control of the Senate for 30 years and counting

“I think fundamentally it is still the Senate Republicans trying to figure out how to work with a House Democratic majority,” Kinkead said. “For a long time they have been used to being the decision makers.”

That’s a failure of government at all levels. We get in our corners and we don’t want to come out.

– State Sen. Tom Mehaffie (R-Dauphin)

That has led to a learning curve for leadership in both chambers to get legislation to Shapiro, Kinkead said. Out of 32 bills, excluding appropriations bills, that Shapiro has signed this session, 18 originated in the House.

The process of getting those through the Senate has been transactional, Kinkead said.

“From the conversations that I know of that are happening with the Senate, it is anything that we want comes at a cost. So it’s negotiating the trades … What do we want to get moving and what are we willing to pay to get it?

“In a lot of ways they have been shutting down our offers,” Kinkead said. “It’s been a lot of conversations where it’s ‘Sorry no, that’s dead on arrival.’”

Nobody gets exactly what they want 100% of the time, but lawmakers have a duty to engage in discourse to get things done, Fee said.

“That is literally what the process is supposed to be,” Fee said. “Being willing to stand up and debate your ideas and accept changes for the good of progress isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.”

Kenyatta said the Senate’s passage of funding for the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities this month after a monthslong deadlock gives him hope for more progress.

But Kenyatta said Senate Republicans in swing districts should be mindful of how their opponents could campaign on the promise of a Democratic majority in both chambers.

“As we get closer, if people care about not just winning a primary against a MAGA Republican but winning the general election they’d better get in line with what voters want,” Kenyatta said.

Fairness Act protections for LGBTQ+ people clears Pa. House with bipartisan support

“If you’re Devlin Robinson you should be jumping up and down to make sure the Fairness Act gets passed,” Kenyatta said, referring to the Republican senator from deeply Democratic Allegheny County. 

Mehaffie agreed, saying that voters pay attention not only to political ideology, but also to issues, such as his patient safety legislation, that affect their communities and neighbors. 

“When the general public gets upset over an issue as they did in this last general election, there is no doubt in my mind that it can change the dynamic of a district very quickly if you’re not paying attention to it,” Mehaffie said.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.

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