Senate Rules Reform
Citizen Co-Sponsorship Campaign
Join Senator Lindsey Williams and Senator Katie Muth in sending the message that we want a Senate that represents the voices of all Pennsylvanians, not one that concentrates power in the hands of a few. Add your name here to tell Senate Leadership that you want the Senate Operating Rules to make Pennsylvania’s policy making process more open, transparent and participatory.
The Pennsylvania Senate votes on its own Operating Rules every two years. These rules govern everything we do, from how much notice the public needs before the Senate can act so that people can meaningfully participate in their government, to how we record votes on publicly facing websites so that constituents can see how their representatives voted.
Historically, the Senate Rules have allowed the Majority Party to silence the voices of millions of Pennsylvanians through rules that permit just a few Senators to prevent a bill from having a hearing or receiving a vote in committee or on the Senate Floor. This goes for legislation that is overwhelmingly popular and supported by members of both parties, such as “Victoria’s Law” which would ban the sale of puppy mill dogs in pet stores.
On January 3, we’re proposing the following changes to the Senate Rules so that this body will better represent the people of Pennsylvania.
- Require that all bills and resolutions receive a vote in committee.
- Require a ⅔ vote for certain motions, including tabling.
- Ensure adequate public notice of Senate action by requiring the marked calendar to be released at least 24 hours before the start of session.
- Authorize Minority Chairs to call committee hearings.
- Empower Minority Chairs to add legislation to the committee voting agenda.
- Expand legislative requirements and action for bills on concurrence, including allowing amendments to be offered on the floor to bills on concurrence.
- Require action on bipartisan legislation and legislation that has received bipartisan support in the House.
- Ensure every amendment gets a vote and requires that all amendment votes, both in committee and on the floor, are recorded on the public-facing website of the legislature and in the Senate journal.
- Require Majority and Minority Party participation to conduct official business, including committee meeting quorum requirements
- Expand the camera view to the full Senate floor during session so the public can see who is on the floor and observe senators casting their votes.
- Mandate all committee hearings to be livestreamed, recorded, and archived to ensure meetings held in the Rules Committee Room are viewable by the public.
- Guarantee equitable representation on standing committees.
- Require makers of bills to stand for interrogation upon request.
- Require a publicly-available fiscal note for every bill prior to it receiving a floor vote.
- Expand the type of floor actions that are debatable, including the motion to table
- Require Committee Chairs to administer oaths for all testifiers at hearings.
- Implement a sexual harassment and misconduct policy to protect all individuals working within the State Capitol, including outside contractors, lobbyists, and visitors.
- Require all members’ legislative expenses and all per diem payments to be publicly posted and in searchable format on the public-facing website of the legislature.
Senator Lindsey Williams Offers Ethics Rules that Address Workplace Sexual Harassment for Anyone Interacting with the Senate
Senator Williams Offers Alternative, Stronger Financial Disclosure Rules for 2023-24 Session
Sen. Muth, Sen. Williams Highlight Need for Senate Rules Reforms at Virtual Roundtable
HARRISBURG, December 9, 2022 – State Senator Katie Muth (D- Berks/Chester/Montgomery), Chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, and state Senator Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) hosted a virtual roundtable discussion Wednesday night on the operating rules of the Pennsylvania State Senate and their package of reforms that would enhance transparency and ensure fairness in the legislative process.
The Senate Rules are the parliamentary procedures by which the Senate adheres to and the process by which the Senate creates public policy, considers issues and resolves disputes. The Senate Rules are adopted at the beginning of each two-year legislative session by a simple majority vote and will be voted on when the Senate reconvenes for the new legislative session on January 3, 2023.
Are any of the proposed rules promoting collaboration on bipartisan bills? Should committee chairs have absolute control over committee agenda?
Several of our rules reforms are designed to promote bipartisan cooperation. First, every bill that has a majority of cosponsors from the Majority party and a majority of cosponsors from the Minority party is required to be voted out of Committee and receive a final vote on the floor. Additionally, our reforms would require that any bill that originated in the House and is reported to the Senate with at least a single vote from the Minority party is reported from Committee and receives a vote on final passage on the Senate floor.
Committee Chairs should not have absolute control over the Committee agenda and our reforms address that issue by empowering Minority Chairs to add bills to the agenda of a voting meeting. Our reforms also require at least one member of the Minority Party to be present in order to establish a quorum for a voting meeting of a Senate standing committee.
In the past ten years, how often has a discharge petition gotten a bill out of committee?
Over the past ten years, a discharge resolution has been filed by members of the Senate Democratic Caucus for the immediate consideration of ten separate bills – only twice in ten years did Senate Democratic Leadership make a motion on the floor to call for a vote on the discharge resolution and both were this past session. The motion to consider those two bills, Senate Bill 134 (Extreme Risk Protection Orders) and Senate Bill 88 (Universal Background Checks), failed by a party-line 28-21 vote and they were never brought out of Committee for a vote.
Here is a list of the other eight times that Senate Democrats filed Discharge Resolutions on legislation in Committee since the 2010-11 legislative session. None of these bills were ever brought out of their respective Committees and a motion to consider the discharge resolutions was never made on the Senate floor:
Senate Resolution 225 – directing the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to evaluate the state’s Human Services Block Grant Pilot Program (dropped from calendar without consideration)
Senate Bill 195 – raising the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2016 (dropped from calendar without consideration)
Senate Bill 761 – establishing a 72-hour waiting period for all firearms transfers (dropped from calendar without consideration)
Senate 217 – requiring lost or stolen firearms to be reported to local law enforcement authorities within 24 hours (dropped from calendar without consideration)
Seems like a lot of bills that die in committee get attached to the budget. Are there special rules that control the budget process, and do your proposals address budget procedures?
Per the Senate Rules from the 2021-22 legislative session, “no bill shall be passed containing more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title, except a general appropriation bill or a bill codifying or compiling the law or a part thereof.” This is one example from the previous set of Senate rules that deals specifically with the state budget process. While many of our reforms would make the budget process more bipartisan and transparent, none of our proposals are specific to the enactment of a state budget but more broadly focused on the legislative process.
It seems to me that once the special elections are sorted out, the D's in the House will pass D legislation and hopefully some of that legislation will be bipartisan. The R's in the Senate will pass R legislation and hopefully some of that legislation will be bipartisan. What are the chances the bipartisan legislation that comes out of one chamber could be guaranteed a vote in the other?
There are various items in our proposed set of Rules Reforms that would promote and encourage bipartisan cooperation and ensure bipartisan legislation gets a vote in the Senate Chamber. Among those reforms are requiring every bill and resolution to receive a vote in Committee; and requiring action on Senate legislation with bipartisan cosponsors and legislation that was voted through the House with bipartisan support. Without some of our reforms being enacted, there is nothing in the Senate rules requiring the Majority to take up any bills passed by the opposing Majority Party in the House of Representatives. Unless there are more equitable and fair rules developed in the Senate, we may experience even more partisan gridlock in Harrisburg.
Who develops the rules for the next session?
The Senate Rules are adopted at the beginning of each two-year legislative session by a simple majority vote – meaning the Majority Party can set and establish rules without a single vote of a member of the Minority Party.
How can poison-pill amendments be guarded against?
Many proposed amendments that change the underlying goal of a bill for the worse are adopted quickly after being introduced and with little time for review. Our changes would require that an amendment in committee be submitted no later than 24 hours prior to the meeting, to allow for time to review. Our reforms would also mandate that a marked calendar be made public no later than 24 hours before the start of session, along with having a supplemental calendar be made public no later than 12 hours prior to the start of session. All of these changes are meant for members of the Minority party and the public to be made aware of any amendments that could make a seemingly agreeable bill into something more controversial.
Will the Senate Democratic caucus vote against similar rules if offered by Republican leadership? Any possibility of getting some Republicans to support, enough to vote down those rules and force negotiations for fairer rules?
If the same set of rules outlined in our letter to Majority leadership and discussed during our virtual roundtable event were introduced and circulated by members of the Majority party, we would be fully supportive. The operating rules of the Senate should not be partisan and we believe that our rules reforms would increase bipartisan cooperation, improve transparency in the legislative process, and allow for all members of both parties to have an opportunity for their bills and their amendments to be considered by the Senate.
We have indicated our desire to meet with Majority leadership to discuss our suggested changes to the Senate Rules and hope that we are afforded an opportunity to work in a bipartisan manner to adopt rules that are equitable and fair to both parties.
Do you mean that they purposefully and negligently move your work to the wrong place? And this is used as a form of retribution? This is also shameful!
The current Senate Rules hinder the ability of the Minority Party and allow the Majority Party to have unilateral control of the Senate Calendar, Committee proceedings and hearings, and floor activity. Hundreds of bills and resolutions drafted by members of the Minority Party never receive consideration in a Committee.
In October 2020, I introduced Senate Bill 1277 which would protect patients’ rights and dignity by requiring informed consent for any pelvic, rectal, and prostate examinations. This bill was wrongly referred by the Majority to the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee where it was never brought up for a vote. This past session, I reintroduced that language as Senate Bill 815 and it was appropriately referred to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and voted out with unanimous support – like many other bills introduced by Senate Democrats, this bill was never brought up for a vote on the Senate floor.
One of our proposed rules reforms would enable the Minority Chair of a Senate Committee to add legislation to a committee voting agenda – which would allow for members of the Minority to ensure bipartisan measures like this are moving out of Committee.
It is obvious that Senate rules are an impediment to effective legislating. So what is the recommendation for the best way to fix this problem?
The best way to fix the problem is to allow for bipartisan cooperation in crafting the operating rules for the Senate for the upcoming 2023-24 legislative session. With only a simple majority vote needed to enact the operating rules for the Senate, the process allows for only one party to unilaterally create and pass the operating rules for our Chamber. If we can work with the Majority party on the Rules, we can include many of the reforms that we had previously introduced as Senate Resolution 4 in the 2021-22 legislative session and that we are reintroducing this upcoming session.
What's your best guess why Republican Senators put up with this?
As currently written, the Rules are designed to empower the Majority party and allow for sole control and discretion over what bills move and what actions take place on the Senate floor. In the 2021-22 legislative session, only two bills that were prime sponsored by Senate Democrats were signed into law this past session while 111 bills prime sponsored by Senate Republicans reached the Governor’s desk. Members of the Majority party are not faced with the same legislative obstacles that face the Minority party in the legislative process so the Majority has no reason to change the rules if their priorities and bills are moving through the legislative process
If the opposite party becomes the Minority some time in the future, would you still want to give the minority these prerogatives?
Our rules reforms are designed to create a more fair and equitable legislative process and to encourage bipartisan cooperation in the Senate. If our caucus were to attain the majority in the Pennsylvania Senate in future sessions, we would support these same set of rules that we are proposing this session as members of the minority
What can we do as the public to help promote these changes?
Prior to the vote on the new operating rules of the Senate on January 3, we are asking all of you to be involved – contact your local Senator and contact the leaders in the Majority Party to let them know that you are supportive of our efforts to reform the rules of the Senate.
If you do not know who your Senator is, you can visit legis.state.pa.us and use their Find My Legislator Tool. You can also click here to view contact information for all current members of the Pennsylvania Senate.
Are you going to limit the number of bills introduced if all bills have to get a vote?
Our proposed rules reforms do not include limiting the number of bills introduced. If we were to place an arbitrary cap on the number of bills introduced, we could limit the legislature’s ability to address any public issues or emergency situations that may arise after that number is met. While requiring all bills to receive a vote in Committee may increase the number of meetings and legislative days, we think it is important to allow for all bills to be considered.
What are the chances for change?
It is impossible to predict the intentions of the Majority party but it is our hope that our rules reforms can be discussed with Majority leadership sometime prior to January 3 and that at least some of these changes can be incorporated for the 2023-24 legislative session.
Which 1 or 2 reforms are most important to you?
We are hopeful that many of the reforms we are proposing are incorporated on January 3. Whether requiring ⅔ vote for certain floor motions, requiring all bills to receive a Committee vote, empowering Minority chairs to call Committee hearings, mandating a livestream and recording of all Senate Committee hearings, or expanding the types of floor actions that are debatable – all of these reforms taken together would positively impact the legislative process and improve the operation of the Senate.