Tuesday was back-to-school day for Bryan Cutler.
After being unanimously elected to the highest-profile post in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Monday, the Peach Bottom Republican was spending his morning in “speaker school,” meeting with the chamber’s parliamentarian to read through a binder of rules and past precedents on how to run the chamber.
“It's more of an umpire,” Cutler said of his new job wielding the speaker’s gavel to control the floor debate -- instead of participating as majority leader. “I think I'll miss the debating, because that was something that I did enjoy. In terms of the legislative process, I'll get to view that from a different perspective now.”
Cutler’s election comes just as legislators are wrapping up in Harrisburg. Legislators typically would not return in the fall to pass major legislation just before an election with their names on the ballots, but 2020 is different. The pandemic has delayed important budget decisions, and Cutler said Tuesday in his first official interview since becoming speaker that he believes there will be time for significant policy discussions left in his shortened term.
Still, he’s hesitant to divulge any grand plans with a new leadership team in place and an unpredictable pandemic still raging.
“I learned a long time ago that what happens here is often influenced by a lot of things outside of here, and you’ve just got to be prepared to respond and manage it,” Cutler said.
Cutler is the third Lancaster Countian to rise to the House’s top seat and the first since 1929. He is a former X-ray technologist and lawyer whose family roots in Drumore Township stretch back two centuries. He lives in the same log cabin house on several acres of farmland where he grew up and where the local community rallied around his family when he was a teenager and both his parents were diagnosed with ALS. Legislative colleagues have described him as bright, popular and unable to sit still -- he said he was doing daily 5 a.m. CrossFit sessions until the COVID-19 outbreak, which helped him shed 70 pounds since the start of 2019.
His 13-year tenure as a legislator also marks the quickest rise for any speaker in more than 50 years.
But he and other Republicans who control the chamber said this week they know their new positions could be short-lived. The current two-year legislative session ends the month after the November general election, during which all 203 House members will be on ballots across the state.
Democrats are trying to flip nine seats to take the majority for the first time in a decade, which would give them the speakership for a consequential next session, during which the majority will have a strong hand in redrawing their districts for the next decade.
Cutler said he feels confident Republicans will keep the majority, and he’s been active in helping elect and fundraise for GOP candidates.
While speakers have had great power in passing legislation they personally support or holding up ones they oppose, Cutler said he plans to keep the same bottom-up philosophy he had in the last year-and-a-half as majority leader.
If a bill passes committee, they’ll talk about bringing it to a full floor vote. If it has broad support, they’ll vote -- even if it is something he opposes. He’s voted against the majority of his party on occasion even as the head of the caucus, like on legalizing Sunday hunting and to-go cocktails during the pandemic shutdown.
“Our job is to get the issues solved,” Cutler said, noting that he views both the majority leader and speaker positions the same way in his approach. “I've always been a big believer that I don't care whose name is on it, I just want to get it fixed. And there's certainly no shortage of problems that we're facing as a Commonwealth.”
The House has already been moving at a fast pace to pass legislation, considering 541 bills since Cutler became majority leader.
One of the most pressing, high-stakes issues on his plate now will be leading during the House’s war with Gov. Tom Wolf over ending the governor’s emergency declaration.
The state Supreme Court is preparing to rule on the Senate-initiated lawsuit that the House is looking to join. Cutler acknowledged the lawsuit’s goal -- ending the shutdown -- and Wolf’s recent steps to open the rest of the state may lead to the same result in the end, even if the court rules in favor of the Legislature. But Cutler said he’s concerned about “a bigger institutional balance of powers question” that could be left unresolved.
“Maybe you never get to the constitutional question, but I do think even post-crisis, I do think that you still have to answer that question because you've got to make sure that the component parts are well understood should it ever happen again in the future,” he said.