Pennsylvania House Republican Whip Tim O’Neal is hoping a rule change will limit the number of late-night committee votes held in Harrisburg.
One week after the House Appropriations Committee held votes on election legislation after 11 p.m, O’Neal is seeking to change the rules of the House to prevent similar votes from happening in the future.
“My rule change would simply ensure that committees cannot take votes beyond 11 p.m. – just like the regular chamber,” O’Neal told City & State in an interview.
Following last week’s committee votes, House Republicans took issue with when the votes occurred, as the Oct. 4 Appropriations Committee meeting began after 11 p.m. During floor debate on the bills and in subsequent press conferences, GOP lawmakers have referred to the votes as “midnight madness” and sought to compare the vote to the 2005 pay raise scandal, in which lawmakers voted to raise their own pay at 2 a.m. on July 7, 2005.
The Oct. 4 event differed from the pay raise scandal in that lawmakers were voting on election legislation, not pay raises. And unlike after the 2005 vote, when the pay raises were signed into law by then-Gov. Ed Rendell, none of the election code bills considered by the House last week have been signed into law yet.
The late-night committee meeting last week was held to consider two pieces of legislation, both of which sought to change the date of the state’s presidential primary. One bill, House Bill 1634, would move the primary date to April 2 and was approved by the committee with no changes, while another bill, Senate Bill 224, which would have moved Pennsylvania’s presidential primary to March 19 and implemented a universal voter ID requirement, was amended.
Lawmakers amended the bill on Oct. 4 to include several other election law changes, including a measure giving county election officials three days to pre-canvass mail-in ballots, as well as language requiring the Department of State to conduct audits of every election in the state. The bill was ultimately defeated by a resounding 26-177 vote, but that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from criticizing the process by which the bill was passed.
“The committee members were given literally minutes’ – single-digit minutes – notice that they were going to vote on a pretty substantial change to the legislation that was at hand,” O’Neal said of the Oct. 4 vote on SB 224.
According to Rule 15 of the chamber’s operating rules, the House may not convene for session before 8 a.m., and no roll call votes can be taken after 11 p.m. – unless lawmakers vote to extend session, which requires a three-fourths vote from the chamber.
Republicans on the Appropriations Committee suggested during last week’s meeting that the meeting ran afoul of House rules, though House Appropriations Committee Chair Jordan Harris disagreed, countering that another portion of the House rules governs how committee meetings are handled.
Harris said in committee on Oct. 4 that committee meetings are not governed by Rule 15: “This is not a meeting of the House. It’s a meeting of the committee, which is governed by the standard committee operating rules,” Harris said.
O’Neal said his rule change would still allow House lawmakers to suspend the rules whenever necessary, and that his rule change will remove any ambiguity on whether committee meetings can be held past 11 p.m.
“For decades now, we’ve been in agreement that we don’t want these middle-of-the-night votes. Well, that should be the same for the committee process,” he said. “I think many of us were operating under the assumption that it was the same, but the House rules never directly addressed the committees, which is why they got away with doing what they did.”
City & State has reached out to the House Democratic Caucus for comment.
This story has been updated to clarify the vote requirement needed to extend a legislative session in the state House.