As the website of the U.S. House of Representatives explains, the speaker “is the political and parliamentary leader” of Congress’ lower chamber. The role of speaker is similar in the Pennsylvania House. As former state House Speaker Bryan Cutler, a Republican from Drumore Township, explained to the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, the speaker of the Pennsylvania House schedules session days, reviews bills and amendments with the parliamentarian, and ensures that those measures meet “strict constitutional requirements.” In helping to set a legislative chamber’s agenda, the speaker holds a great deal of power.
If you tried to avoid watching the long, drawn-out game of chicken that played out in the U.S. House last week, we understand.
It was shameful and bizarre, and the national media’s repeated references to the movie “Groundhog Day” didn’t make it any more enjoyable.
Nor did the prominent role played by U.S. Rep. Scott Perry of York County, one of the 20 or so right-wing Republicans who were, for most of last week at least, hell-bent on denying Rep. Kevin McCarthy the speakership.
Perry is a leader in the House Freedom Caucus — or what some call the GOP’s insurrectionist wing — to which McCarthy has pandered, first by supporting the Big Lie and last week by offering alarming concessions.
Perry was a key participant in a nefarious plan to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election and replace the winner, President Joe Biden, with the loser, former President Donald Trump.
It was galling last week to watch Perry strut around the very chamber desecrated two years before by violent rioters — among them, white supremacists — who shared his aim of overturning Biden’s election. At one point Thursday, so clearly reveling in the media attention he was getting, he almost missed his chance to vote against McCarthy because he was doing an interview with Fox News. Perry finally deigned to vote for McCarthy on Friday, and saluted as his fellow House members cheered wildly.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker of Lancaster County kept a lower profile.
But given his own dalliance with the insurrectionist wing — he was among the Republicans in Congress who voted against accepting Pennsylvania’s 2020 electoral votes, mere hours after the U.S. Capitol came under siege — we were bemused by Smucker’s complaints about Perry and company.
Smucker was backing McCarthy, who is his ticket to powerful committee assignments.
Smucker told LNP | LancasterOnline’s Russ Walker on Wednesday that the protracted speakership battle was delaying “the work we should be doing for the American people.”
We agree with him, to a point. It was frustrating to watch several hundred highly paid elected officials tapping away on their phones, and chatting in cliques, as a train wreck replaced what should have been a routine parliamentary procedure.
But we don’t believe Smucker’s grasp of the needed work is the same as the millions of Americans who voted in the midterms for a narrowly divided U.S. House. The much-vaunted red wave failed to materialize in those midterms, so the Republicans only hold a small majority in the chamber. And given that Smucker was a fervent champion of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which ballooned the federal deficit, it’s hard to take seriously his concern for fiscal responsibility.
It’s because there’s so little bipartisan cooperation in Washington, D.C., that a small faction of troublemakers was able to hold the GOP majority hostage for days and create a truly embarrassing spectacle.
Smucker used to belong to the House’s bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, but he threw his lot in with the GOP partisans. It’s a shame. Because the U.S. House could have used more problem-solvers last week.
The drama in Harrisburg naturally drew less attention, because it seemed to have been resolved in a more high-minded manner.
That was the appearance anyway.
To briefly recap the situation: Democrats won 102 seats in the Nov. 8 midterm elections, but one of their winning candidates, incumbent state Rep. Tony DeLuca, of Allegheny County, died in October.
Two additional Democratic state representatives from Allegheny County resigned Dec. 7: Austin Davis, who was elected lieutenant governor, and Summer Lee, who won a seat in Congress.
So three special elections must be held. Democrats are favored to win those seats and therefore the state House majority, but when the new legislative session began last Tuesday, the GOP held a 101-99 majority.
Republicans clearly wanted to elect a speaker from their party.
The House Democrats, prematurely, had asserted that Rep. Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia should be awarded the gavel because a majority of the commonwealth’s legislative districts — 102 — voted in the midterms for Democrats to represent them. But Democrats collided with the mathematics of the chamber’s makeup last week.
So state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Democrat from Berks County, somehow wound up being elected speaker and then promptly declared he would become an independent.
Elected with the support of both Republican and Democratic House leaders, Rozzi said he would serve without caucusing with either party. How noble, right?
Color us skeptical.
As The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, Rozzi told Democrats in a closed-door meeting after Tuesday’s vote that he would remain a registered Democrat. “On the opposing side, Cutler said he still expects Rozzi to change his party registration to leave the Democratic Party, per their agreement, once he gets more settled into the speakership.”
While we credit Cutler for not insisting he should be the speaker again — thereby avoiding the chaos that played out in the U.S. House — we wonder just what deal-making culminated in the Republicans backing Rozzi. Such deal-making serves to deepen distrust in government.
In an interview with Johnstown’s NBC affiliate, Republican state Rep. Jim Gregory of Blair County offered some insight.
Gregory said the deal with Rozzi was made by the GOP leadership and would ensure that “we control the calendar as Republicans. ... which means we also control what bills run and when they run, which means bills that would have been run against us in the minority by the Democrats in the majority, had we not done this, would have included pro-abortion, anti-gun legislation and now they can’t do that.”
Gregory also said that Rozzi’s grandiose first speech as speaker — in which he pledged his loyalty only to “the people of the commonwealth” — was written by the GOP.
Gregory later told Spotlight PA that he meant that Republicans will have the same level of “control” as Democrats should Rozzi remain an independent after the special elections take place and the chamber be split 101-101-1.
Cutler has been open about what he hopes to see from Speaker Rozzi.
As The Inquirer noted, Rozzi — a survivor of childhood sexual abuse — has fought for a constitutional amendment that would widen the window for survivors to sue their abusers or the institutions that shielded those abusers. Gregory, also a survivor, has worked on the issue with Rozzi.
As last week drew to a close, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that he was calling for a special session to be held Monday to work on a constitutional amendment that would retroactively extend the timeline for victims of childhood sexual abuse to file civil actions.
As The Inquirer reported, “Cutler suggested that with Rozzi as speaker — and his interest in passing constitutional amendments, the House would vote on amendments that would impose stricter voter ID requirements and make it easier for the Legislature to reject regulations. Democrats have previously opposed these measures.”
Meanwhile, good-government groups expressed hope that Rozzi would help to usher in fairer rules in the House. As Spotlight PA explained, “At the top of the wish list for a coalition of good-government groups is a mechanism that would force committee and floor votes on legislation with bipartisan support.”
As Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA and FixHarrisburg.com, wrote in last Sunday’s Perspective section, “Pennsylvania needs a collaborative Legislature that’s able to negotiate and pass bipartisan solutions, so that our economy and communities can thrive.”
We’ve decried the ineffectiveness of the state Legislature, and its stubborn resistance to passing popular, commonsense legislation, so we’d like to see that, too.
We’ll be watching to see how things shake out and — because hope still triumphs over experience — we'll be hoping for the best.