(The Center Square) – Legislators in Pennsylvania traditionally spend off-session weeks in their districts, but this time the “work” of constituent relations itself seems contested in the narrowly divided House.
In one corner, Republicans protest loud and often that House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Temple, and the rest of his party won’t show up for work. After all, they argue, it was his decision to adjourn session until the last day of February, marking nearly two months without any legislative action – or even operating rules – at all.
“From education reform to the proposed constitutional amendments, we must act swiftly on passing measures that people have been desperately asking for us to get across the finish line,” said House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Josh Kail, R-Beaver, on Monday. “It’s time for the Democrats to join the House Republican Caucus in getting back to work.”
In the other corner, House Democrats eye a likely one-seat majority for the first time in a decade, and with it the power to advance legislative priorities long ignored by their Republican colleagues – issues their party believes matter most to residents.
Nicole Reigelman, spokeswoman for House Democrats, told The Center Square members “have been busy engaging” with constituents and advocacy groups in their districts. Many others have joined public hearings that “are important to the people and communities our caucus represents.”
“Claims that House members aren’t working are untrue,” she said. “Grandstanding and making pointless assertions about being ‘unable to work’ because the Legislature is not in session are counterproductive and insincere.”
Standing between the two factions are scores of policy committee meetings, Rozzi’s ongoing listening tour and bubbling resentment among residents tired of the partisan gridlock.
Some, like the members of the Derry Township Advocates for Transparency and Freedom, blame Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Hershey, for sinking his party’s last-ditch effort to force a recall of session against Rozzi’s will.
A legislative source also recently told The Center Square the lone holdout also stood opposed to Republicans’ pick for House Speaker – the highest ranking position in the chamber – in favor of Rozzi.
Mehaffie said last week in response to the criticism that he will “always choose cooperation over chaos” when it comes to his role as a state representative. It wasn’t enough to deter the advocates’ protest outside of his office in Hershey on Wednesday.
Paul Muschick, columnist for The Morning Call, blasted Rozzi directly in a Jan. 26 article where he noted that taxpayers will spend $3.4 million paying House lawmakers’ salaries through Feb. 27 for doing “diddly squat.”
“Rozzi has put the House on hiatus so he can travel around the state holding a hokey ‘listening tour’ to collect feedback from the public about what rules the House should operate under,” he said. “And he’s created a bipartisan committee of representatives to negotiate terms. That’s all just a smoke screen.”
Bill White, another columnist for The Morning Call, said it's Republicans who should be ashamed. In an article published Jan. 21, he pointed to the dispute underlying the chamber’s deadlock over operating rules: three constitutional amendments, two of which the party knows will never make it onto the ballot once Democrats control the House.
Chief among the proposed amendments is a two-year window that gives adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse two years to sue their perpetrators in civil court. Rozzi has refused to move the House forward until it holds a vote on the proposal.
But in the Senate, the Republican majority approved a resolution that bundles the amendment with two others that would enact voter ID and regulatory reform.
They argued that voters deserve the ultimate say on these issues, too, and called out Democrats for "fearing" the results.
White described the decision as the “latest demonstration of their allegiance to twisted priorities."
“Survivors of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania have been disappointed so many times that another setback should come as no surprise,” he said. “But that makes it no less despicable.”