Inauguration day of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives will be fraught with uncertainty

On January 3, 2023, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives will meet and decide whether our state demonstrates the potential for effective governance or justifies the current cynicism about democracy.

The arithmetic is easy, but the human dimension of the problem is much more difficult.

Legislative bodies are governed by majorities. They are organized by the majority party and the passing of laws requires a majority of those elected.

Voters elected 101 members of the Republican House of Representatives and 102 Democrats. However, one of the Democrats – Tony DeLuca – died before the election, reducing their number to 101. Two other Democrats – Austin Davis and Summer Lee – were also elected to other offices (Lt. Governor and US Congress). These two will likely be persuaded to take office, albeit temporarily, at the Pennsylvania House, creating a 101-101 tie.

The options in front of the house then become:

1. One or more switchovers.

A dissenting member from either party could be persuaded to leave, thereby creating a lasting majority for the absorbing faction. This would allow for the organization of the House of Representatives and the election of the Speaker, but would be a cumbersome structure and could be disrupted by the results of the special election to fill the vacant seats.

2nd stalemate

Assuming both caucuses remain cohesive and stand their ground, the House of Representatives cannot organize, pass rules, or elect a speaker. However, the Democratic membership will drop to 99 if Davis and Lee step down to take their new seats. (Congress meets January 3 and the lieutenant governor is sworn in January 17.) This would result in a total membership of 200, and a constitutional majority would now be 101. Republicans would then elect the speaker and proceed.

One of the first tasks is to set the date for the special elections to fill the vacancies. Since Democrats are heavily favored in these seats, they would be able to reorganize the House of Representatives and choose their nominee for speaker if and when they are successful. It is therefore likely that the Republican spokesman would put the date as far in the future as possible, to the May primary.

3. Mayhem

The frustration and tensions that would result from failure to govern would likely prompt behavior that would increase unpredictability. The limitless ingenuity of the lawyers would be brought into play and every nuance and obscure rule and practice would be exploited. For example, a speaker can only be removed by a majority of the elected members, but a speaker can be elected by a majority of the members present and voting.

This raises the possibility that during the stalemate a speaker could be elected by someone who happened to be in the House of Representatives chamber.

4. Power Sharing

The bottom line is that the state constitution requires that laws be passed by a majority of those elected, and the reality is that no stable majority will be available for either party during this term.

Power-sharing arrangements can be structural in nature, such as B. Committee membership and powers, a joint bureau, rules for the legislative calendar and debate, etc. They could also be informal rules of engagement, allowing for budgetary management, determining which issues are considered and a mechanism for resolving conflicts and misunderstandings.

All such arrangements require the forbearance of the members of each faction and considerable deference to their respective leaderships.

New Governor Josh Shapiro’s support for a rule would be very helpful. He is politically savvy and happened to be the architect of such an arrangement when he was a member of the House of Representatives in 2007-2008.

If the special elections confirm a lasting majority, the successful implementation of power-sharing could potentially lead to positive experiences across party lines that would ensure better communication in the future.

Today’s reality in Harrisburg is one of divided government: divided by party, divided by ideology, and divided by those who would replace principle with passion.

One day, sensible debate in a transparent forum, watched by people of good will, and directed by an informed electorate, will change all that. In the meantime, I suggest that the business of government must be pragmatic.

It’s not done perfectly. It never was. But it can be done and has never been more important.

Bob O’Donnell is Speaker Emeritus of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.