Chapter 5:
The Legislature

The Pennsylvania Legislature

The Pennsylvania Legislature is bicameral, meaning it has two parts: The Pennsylvania Senate and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. These two houses of government must work together to pass laws and to set policy. Laws approved by the Senate and House, together called the General Assembly, must then be signed or vetoed by the Governor.

The Senate and House meet in Harrisburg. The main purpose of the General Assembly is to consider bills and pass laws. The Pennsylvania Constitution defines a “Bill” as a proposed law introduced in either House. “Act” is a term used to define a bill that has been passed by both Houses and becomes law.

The Senate

The Pennsylvania Senate is comprised of 50 Senators. All 50 Senators are elected by citizens of the 50 senatorial districts across Pennsylvania. Elections for Senators are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even years. Senators serve a term of four years and as required by the Pennsylvania Constitution, only half the Senators (25) are elected every two years.

The Pennsylvania Constitution requires Senators be at least 25 years old, be a U.S. citizen, and live in the state of Pennsylvania for four years. In addition, Senators are required to live in the district they are representing for at least one year prior to running and are required to remain in their respective district during the time they serve in office.

Order of Business

Each time the Pennsylvania Senate meets (convenes) a very specific order of business is followed to handle the work of the Senate. The Order of Business follows:

Order of BusinessDescription
First Call to Order
Second Prayer by the Chaplain and Pledge of Allegiance
Third Reading of Communications (letters from citizens/organizations or messages from other state agencies)
Fourth Receiving reports of committees—often certain issues are sent (referred) to Senate committees for a report back to the full Senate (or House)
Fifth Reading of bills (proposed laws that have yet to become law)
Sixth Offering of original resolutions (Resolutions are assignments for agencies—such as preparing a study for the Senate—or ways to set rules for the Senate)
Seventh Asking for leaves of absence
Eighth Consideration of the Calendar—deciding when next to meet and, sometimes, for what reason
Ninth Consideration of Executive Nominations (Recall that the Governor sends the names of people to serve as state leaders for the approval of the Senate)
Tenth Approval of Journals (meeting notes) from previous sessions
Eleventh Unfinished Business. Reports of Committees. Other Resolutions.
Twelfth First consideration of bills reported from committee.
Thirteenth Introduction of Petitions and Remonstrances (This is a time for Senate members to raise questions, challenge previous actions, or debate an issue)
Fourteenth Announcements by the Secretary or Parliamentarian
Fifteenth Adjournment

Order and Decorum

Appropriate behavior in the Pennsylvania Senate is explained by the Order and Decorum section of the Pennsylvania Manual. These rules include how to avoid speaking out of order or more than once, how to question the order of a Senate meeting (session), and how Senators are recognized (allowed to speak on the record) in the Senate Chamber.

Offices in the Pennsylvania Senate

Lieutenant Governor as President of the Senate

The Lieutenant Governor serves as the President of the Senate. Duties of the President of the Senate include:

  • On a legislative day, call the Senators to order and proceed with the Order of Business on the appearance of a quorum (or proceed with the Order of Business when a sufficient number of Senators are present)
  • Preserve order and decorum. In extreme cases, the Lieutenant Governor has the authority to adjourn the Senate with the agreement of the President Pro Tempore and the Majority and Minority Leaders
  • Prevent personal reflections during debates
  • In the case of a tie during voting in the Senate, the Lieutenant Governor can step in and vote to break the tie
  • Decide which Senator shall be first to speak in a situation where two or more arise
  • Sign resolutions, orders, writs, warrants, and subpoenas issued by order of the Senate
  • Decide all points of order (subject to appeal)

President Pro Tempore

The President Pro Tempore is elected through a majority vote among members of the Senate. Likewise, a majority vote is required to remove a seated President Pro Tempore. The President Pro Tempore performs the duties of the Lieutenant Governor when the Lieutenant Governor is absent, disabled, or if the Office of the Lieutenant Governor is vacant.

In addition, the President Pro Tempore:

  • Appoints the Chairmen, Vice-Chairmen and members of the Standing Committees of the Senate
  • Appoints members to special committees
  • Fills all vacancies that occur in committees
  • Refers every bill and joint resolution introduced by the Senate or received from the House of Representatives to the appropriate Standing Committee
  • Appoints Senate employees as allowed or required by law
  • Votes last on all questions
  • The President Pro Tempore may also name any Senator to preside in the absence of the President.

Secretary-Parliamentarian

The Secretary-Parliamentarian is elected by the Members of the Senate at the beginning of each regular session that begins in an odd-numbered year. They can also be elected at other times when necessary. The Secretary-Parliamentarian is not a Senator.

The responsibilities of the Secretary-Parliamentarian include:

  • Assisting the presiding officer conduct sessions
  • Under the direction of the President Pro Tempore
    • Prepare and publish the Senate calendar
    • Publish the Senate history
    • Number Senate bills in order as they are introduced
    • Print bills to share with all Senators.
  • Keep records of Senate actions on bills
  • Transmit all bills, joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions, and appropriate memorials to the House of Representatives within 24 hours of final passage by the Senate
  • Attest all writs, warrants, and subpoenas issued by order of the Senate
  • Be in charge of the Senate library and assist Senators find reference materials
  • Perform duties as assigned by the State Librarian
  • Supervise the Chief Sergeant-at-Arms, the Senate Bill Room, the Senate Print Shop, the Official Reporter’s Office, and the Senate Page Service
  • Post each roll call vote taken by the Senate on the Internet within 24 hours
  • Post the Legislative Journal of the Senate on the Internet upon approval of the Journal or within 45 calendar days of each session.

Chief Clerk

The Chief Clerk of the Senate is elected by the Senators at the beginning of each regular session that begins in an odd-numbered year, or whenever necessary. The Chief Clerk is not a Senator.

The Chief Clerk serves as the chief fiscal officer of the Senate and is under the direction of the President Pro Tempore. If the Secretary-Parliamentarian is absent, the Chief Clerk will (under the direction of the President Pro Tempore), attest all writs, warrants, and subpoenas issued by the Senate, certify passage of Senate Bills, and give approval of executive nominations.

Sergeant-at-Arms

The Sergeant-at-Arms is appointed by the Senate to keep order in the Senate Chamber and adjoining rooms. The Sergeant-at-Arms is not a Senator. Duties include making sure no one, except authorized persons, are on the Senate floor at any time, standing guard at the entrances to the Chamber, announcing the president officers, and making sure all important messages are received.

The Sergeant-at-Arms also escorts the Senate to all Joint meetings with the mace and escorts the Senate Committee appointed to attend funeral services of members or former members of the Senate with the mace.

The rules of the Pennsylvania Senate may be reviewed at this website: http://www.pasen.gov/rules/2013SenRules.pdf.

Committees in the Pennsylvania Senate

Permanent Standing Committees review the workings of certain state agencies that deal with the same subject areas. Requests from Standing Committees include information about existing laws or information that may help shape a proposed law. The Committees can call upon the expertise of public officials, employees, and private individuals for the purpose of gathering or requesting information. The Committees also have the authority to look over any piece of information of any public agency in Pennsylvania. These requests can go as far as issuing subpoenas to gather the required information or to compel individuals to appear before the Committees.

Each permanent Standing Committee has a Chairmen, Vice-Chairmen, and members that are appointed by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Changes in Committee membership or leadership can happen any time, but usually happens after the election of the President Pro Tempore.

Examples of permanent Standing Committees include:

  • Aging and Youth
  • Banking and Insurance
  • Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure
  • Finance
  • Labor and Industry
  • Public Health and Welfare
  • Transportation
  • Agriculture and Rural Affairs
  • Communications and Technology
  • Education
  • Game and Fisheries
  • Law and Justice
  • Rules and Executive Nominations
  • Urban Affairs and Housing
  • Appropriations
  • Community, Economic and Recreational Development
  • Environmental Resources and Energy
  • Judiciary
  • Local Government
  • State Government
  • Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness

A website for each Standing Committee can be found at http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/CteeInfo/StandingCommittees.cfm.

The House of Representatives

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives has 203 Representatives. Each Representative is elected by popular vote by citizens who live in one of the 203 separate districts across Pennsylvania. As is also true for Senators, elections for Representatives are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even years. Unlike the Senators, where only half are up for election every two years, all 203 representatives are up for election every two years.

The Constitution provides for the Commonwealth to be separated into 203 Representative Districts and 50 Senate Districts. Per the Constitution, these districts must be continuous (they cannot be in separate pieces) and must have a similar population to other districts (as much as possible). No county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward can be divided when forming these districts unless there is good reason for it.

The Pennsylvania Constitution requires Representatives be at least 21 years old. They must live in the district they are representing for at least one year prior to running for office and are required to remain in that district throughout the duration of their term in office.

Speaker of the House

The Speaker of the House presides over the House of Representatives. The Speaker is nominated by a majority vote of the House of Representatives and is responsible for the following:

  • Calling the House to order
  • Appointing a member as Speaker Pro Tempore when the Speaker is absent (limited to ten consecutive legislative days)
  • Providing order in the House
  • Deciding all questions of Order
  • Appointing all Committees of Conference (unless otherwise ordered by the House)
  • Referring all bills to Committees for consideration
  • Signing all bills, joint resolutions, resolutions, addresses, orders, writs, warrants, and subpoenas (in the presence of the House)
  • Voting on all questions by the Representatives
  • Appointing the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Standing Committees.

Chief Clerk

The Chief Clerk supervises and has control over the Hall of the House, the caucus (members of the same political party who meet for discussion), committee rooms, and all other rooms assigned to the House. The Chief Clerk also administers the oath or affirmation to all employees of the House (also known as “swearing in”). The Chief Clerk is not a Representative.

Order of Business

Similar to the Pennsylvania Senate, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives follows a very specific order of business to handle all the work that comes before it.

Order of Business
Order of BusinessDescription
First Prayer by the Chaplain
Second Pledge of Allegiance
Third Correction and Approval of the Journal (minutes from previous meetings)
Fourth Leaves of Absence
Fifth Calling of the Role
Sixth Reports of Committees
Seventh First Consideration of bills
Eighth Second consideration of bills
Ninth Third consideration of bills
Tenth Final passage of bills recalled from the Governor
Eleventh Message from the Senate and communications from the Governor
Twelfth Reference to appropriate committees of bills, resolutions, petitions, memorials, remonstrances, and other papers
Thirteenth Unfinished business on the Speaker’s table
Fourteenth Announcements
Fifteenth Adjournment

Committees in the House of Representatives

Committees in the House of Representatives serve the same role as those in the Pennsylvania Senate. These committees are formed to handle the bills that are presented in the House chamber. Committees are formed based on expertise and will review bills that fall within a specific topic (such as environmental issues, transportation, children and youth, etc.). The committee usually reviews a bill before it is brought for a vote in the House. Committees help shorten the processes for bills to be presented for a vote in the House. Bills can also be sent to committees to slow the process.

Committees can take the following actions on any bill:

  • Hold a meeting to discuss the bill (these meetings are open to the public)
  • Hold a public hearing on a bill
  • Refer the bill to a Subcommittee
  • Table the bill (move consideration of the bill to a later time)
  • Change (amend) the bill
  • Defeat the bill
  • Accept the bill.

There are four kinds of committees in the House of Representatives. You can learn about each current Standing Committee and their Chairs on the Pennsylvania House of Representatives website (click the text to be directed to the website). The Committees are (in order of rank):

  • Committee of the Whole House (the House of Representatives can make a itself one committee by a majority vote in the House)
  • Standing Committees
    • These Committees review bills based on their content (for example, a proposed bill on agriculture will most likely go to the Standing Committee on Agricultural and Rural Affairs)
    • Each consists of members from the majority party and minority party
    • Each standing committee also has subcommittees.
  • Select Committees
    • These committees are temporary and are formed to study specific problems or issues about specific bills
    • They may be made up of various members from Existing Standing Committees
  • Conference Committees
    • These Committees consist of six members from the House and Senate (three from each)
    • The goal of the Conference Committee is to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of a particular bill that both wish to support.

All Committee meetings and hearing where bills are considered are open to public. Meetings of party caucuses and any meeting of the ethics committee are not open to the public.

Tax Bills

All tax bills originate in the House of Representatives. It was set up this way because those responsible for determining how the state collects and spends taxes should also be those closest to the voters. The Pennsylvania Senate does have the ability to amend tax bills.

How a Bill Becomes Law

How does a bill become law? Whether in the House or Senate, ideas for bills usually come from concerned citizens, organizations, companies, legislators and local/state government officials. Other sources of ideas for bills come from new Federal Government regulations and from decisions by the Federal/State court systems. Though there are many sources, the main goal of a bill is to address a concern or issue important to one of these parties. The ultimate goal of the bill is to be signed into law.

When a bill is drafted or proposed a group of legislators sponsor the bill and send it to the Legislative Reference Bureau where a team of legal experts write the bill in the proper format. Once completed the bill is then filed in blue folders called “bluebacks”. These bluebacks are signed by the sponsors and then sent to the Chief Clerk who numbers the proposal.

Next, the blueback is signed by the Speaker of the House who then refers it to a Committee for review. Copies of the bill are made and given to the other members in the House of Representatives and are made available to the public.

Introduced bills undergo intense review by the assigned Committee who must make sure it does not conflict with existing laws and is relevant to the concerns of citizens. Most bills will not make it out of the Committees. 

When a bill is accepted by a Committee it is sent to the floor of the House or Senate where it will first be reviewed by the House or Senate caucuses (a private meeting held by political parties to discuss the bill). If the bill passes through the caucuses, it moves on to the House Floor for Consideration. A bill must be considered three times before a vote is taken to pass the bill. Three votes are required by the Pennsylvania Constitution to give the Legislators and their constituents time to voice their support or objection to the bill.

The three days of Consideration are summarized below:

First Day of Consideration

On the first day of Consideration a bill is announced and reported from a Committee by the Chief Clerk. No debates, amendments, or votes happen at this time. The bill is then tabled and rendered inactive for no more 15 legislative days. The bill can be taken off the table before the 15 day legislative deadline through a majority vote of Representatives.

Second Day of Consideration

The bill is reviewed by the entire House to see if there is enough information to discuss it. Like the first day of Consideration, no debates, amendments, or votes are taken at this time. Any bill that requires the state to spend money is sent to the Appropriations Committee, who will analyze the bill and come up with a “fiscal note” (how much the bill will cost).

Third Day of Consideration

On the third day of Consideration, the bill is up for debate, a vote, or amendments. Once debate over the bill has ended, a vote is taken for each House member through a roll call. Members cannot abstain from voting as each vote requires a “yea” or “nay”. The bill will pass upon a simple majority, which is 102 in the House and 26 in the Senate.

The Governor’s Role

A bill that has been approved by the Pennsylvania Senate and Pennsylvania House of Representatives is sent to the Governor for approval. The Governor can take the following actions on a bill:

  • Sign the bill into law
  • Let the bill become law without the Governor’s signature
  • Veto the bill (which can be overidden by a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives)
  • Use a “line-item veto” which grants the Governor the power to veto specific items in an appropriation bill only.

When the Governor signs a bill it becomes law through the issuance of a new number and title as an Act. The Act is then published in a book called Pamphlet Laws.

Even after a bill becomes law, it is still possible for the law to be repealed. This can be done by a future vote in the General Assembly or by the courts if a court rules the law unconstitutional.

The following link displays the pamphlet, “Making Law: Pennsylvania”, put together by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. This pamphlet displays a useful graphic that shows the Life Cycle of Fictional House Bill 652: http://www.pacapitol.com/Resources/PDF/Making-Law-In-PA.pdf.

Rules for the General Assembly

Resignation or Death of a Member of the General Assembly

If a member of either House should resign or pass away during their term, the presiding officer will issue a writ of election (an order to hold an election) to fill the vacancy for the remainder of the term.

Expulsion

The State Constitution allows either House to expel a member “with the concurrence of a two-thirds vote”. It should be noted that any member who is expelled for corruption can no longer serve in either House.

Restrictions for Members of each House

During their tenure as a member of either House a Senator or Representative cannot be appointed to any civil office (an office of government that is appointed, not elected) under the Commonwealth. Additionally, a member of the General Assembly cannot resign their office during their tenure for appointment to a civil office in the Commonwealth. They must finish out their term. This provision does not prevent a Senator or Representative from running for another office, but they must resign before taking the new office. A member of the United States Congress from Pennsylvania cannot run for an elected position in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Excused from Voting

Article 3, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution allows a Member of the General Assembly to be excused from a vote if they have a private or personal interest in the bill. It has been argued that the bill would need to affect the Member directly and not a class of individuals in order for the Member to abstain from voting.

Employees of the General Assembly

All employees in the Senate, unless otherwise specified by law, are under the control of the President Pro Tempore. In the House of Representatives most high ranking positions are elected by the House or appointed by the Chief Clerk. Employees in the House of Representatives report to the Chief Clerk. Any of the officers in the General Assembly that are designated by the Constitution or law can hire their own employees and have direct control over them.

The salary for employees of the General Assembly is determined by law. The law also prevents changes in salary when the General Assembly is not in session.

Party Leaders

Each House has a majority leader and a minority leader based on the number of seats each party holds. Whichever party has the most elected Representatives in the House or members in the Senate elects the majority leader. These party leaders guide their members in debate, support party programs and policies, and lend support or opposition to legislation based on party preference. The majority leader has some control over what legislative programs come up and when.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have party Whips. A Whip is in charge of monitoring the members of his/her own party to support or reject a bill or other action. A Whip may act as a mediator in cases of discontent or disagreements. They are usually tasked with trying to hold the party together for important votes by making sure they are focused on the same goal or outcome.

Local and Special Legislation

Local control (the ability of counties and municipalities to make their own decisions) is very important in Pennsylvania. To protect local control, the Pennsylvania Constitution clearly prohibits passing any local or special laws through Article 3, Section 32. Laws that provide for the following are not allowed:

  • Regulate the affairs of counties, cities, townships, wards, boroughs, or school districts
  • Locating or changing county seats, forming new counties, or changing county lines
  • Creating new townships or boroughs, changing township lines, borough limits or school districts
  • Remitting fines, penalties and forfeitures, or refunding moneys legally paid into the treasury
  • Exempting property from taxation
  • Regulating labor, trade, mining or manufacturing
  • Creating corporations, or amending, renewing, or extending the charters of corporations.

How the General Assembly Votes

The Pennsylvania Constitution requires the General Assembly to take a roll call vote for the any of the following:

  • Final passage of bills and joint resolutions
  • Agreeing to amendments
  • Receding from amendments
  • Adopting a Conference Committee Report
  • Approving nominations by the Governor
  • Approval of a bill over the Governor’s veto
  • Impeachment
  • On any question, by demand of any two Members.

Senate

Votes are taken when the officer who presides over the chamber states the following: “All those in favor say ‘aye’; those opposed ‘no’.” Each Member is called on individually in alphabetical order and required to respond with an “aye” or “no” (known as a roll call). The clerks then record the vote.

House of Representatives

In the House of Representatives the roll call is done on an electric roll call system. When Representatives are called to vote, the voting machine unlocks and each member uses a switch on their desk to vote “aye” or “no”. After all Representatives have voted the Speaker locks the voting machine and the result is recorded on a specially prepared roll call sheet.

Constitutional Majority vs. Simple Majority

A Constitutional Majority is the number of votes required by the Constitution to take certain action in the General Assembly. For the Senate it is 26 votes (34 votes when a two-thirds vote is required). For the House of Representatives it is 102 votes (136 votes when a two-thirds vote is required).

A simple majority also serves as the quorum (minimum number) to do business in each House. No vote can be taken without this minimum number of members. The smallest number needed for a legal vote in the Senate is at least 26. For the House the smallest number for a legal vote is 102.

How the General Assembly Conducts Business

The topics that follow are ways the General Assembly can address bills or other responsibilities. They are not often used, but can be very effective.

Previous Question

The previous question is a motion to stop all debate and to force the members to take a direct vote upon the issue at hand. This parliamentary procedure is also known as calling for the question or calling the question. This motion requires four Senators in the Senate and 20 Representatives in the House of Representatives to second the motion.

Filibuster

The point of the filibuster is to postpone or prevent a type of action that is under discussion. While there are cases where this can be used to delay votes, the Previous Question motion makes this difficult to accomplish.

General Appropriations

Restrictions

Only expenses that are related to the executive, legislative, judicial, public debt, and public schools are allowed to be included in a general appropriation bill. Also, appropriations cannot be made to charitable, educational, or benevolent purposes that involve a denominational or sectarian institution, corporation, or association.

Charitable and Educational Institutions

Any appropriation made to a charitable or educational institution requires a two-thirds vote of the members elected to each House. The charity or educational institution must also not be under the absolute control of the Commonwealth.

Deficiency Bill

If an appropriation bill is not funded sufficiently, a deficiency bill can be drafted to make up the unfunded dollars.

Impeachment

Impeachment is an official process where a government official is accused of breaking the law. The outcome of this process, if an official is found guilty, may include the removal of that official from office. Criminal or civil punishment could follow. Any elected official can be impeached for any misdemeanors while in office. The decision to impeach can only come from the House of Representatives. Any trial is done by the Senate. Members cannot be impeached without a two-thirds vote of the Senate Members present.

You should visit http://www.legis.state.pa.us/ to further study the Pennsylvania General Assembly. These following topics are some of the many on the website and may be of particular interest to you:

  • Finding your legislator
  • Reviewing the Senate or House calendars
  • Following committee meetings
  • Reading Tweets - @PALegis
  • Finding information for offices in the Legislature
  • Seeing the list of Senators and Representatives
  • Researching statutes
  • Follow legislation