The Cerberus of the General Assembly

In Greek Mythology, the river Styx separates the earth from Hades. A giant three-headed dog named Cerberus guards the river, allowing the dead to enter Hades, but preventing anyone—save a few legendary heroes—from exiting. The Pennsylvania General Assembly has its own Cerberus, which accepts all types of substantive and good-government legislative proposals, but never again allows them to see the light of day. That guard-dog to Limbo is Rep. Babette Josephs, chair of the House State Government Committee.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Senate was set to vote on the Marriage Protection Amendment, a bill which would constitutionally define marriage as between one man and one woman. The bill was instead withdrawn hours before the scheduled vote, to the surprise of supporters, opponents, and observers. The news story out of the Capitol was that if the bill passed the Senate, House Speaker Dennis O’Brien would refer the bill to the dreaded House State Government Committee—an effective kiss of death.

This would not be the first time substantive legislation would be sent down the river to die. In total, 176 bills are currently in the House State Government, trying to cross back and join the living. While many critics and pundits have noted the lack of progress of “reform” in Harrisburg, few have noted that all the proposed reforms seem to perish in one place—the House State Government Committee.

In October 2007, the Pennsylvania Senate passed, by a 48-0 vote, a bill which would ban most taxpayer-funded bonuses. Given the ongoing investigation into the criminality of past bonuses, such a ban seems necessary. The House State Government Committee has held that bill for seven months, without taking a single action on it (at one point promising a hearing, then cancelling it).

Another reform proposal languishing in the House State Government Committee would limit the legislative session, banning the sine die (or “Lame Duck”) session held after an election and before the seating of newly elected legislators. This bill also passed the Senate overwhelmingly in June 2007 by a 41-8 vote. What has the Committee done with it in 10 months? Absolutely nothing.

One fairly innocuous reform is a proposal to put the salary information of state employees available online through the state treasurer. Not a single state senator opposed this measure—it passed 49-0 in June 2007—yet it has not received so much as a hearing in the House State Government Committee.

Following the 2005 pay raise, subsequent repeal, and the court ruling that judges’ pay could not be repealed, there was ambiguity over how judicial pay would be calculated going forward. Legislation addressing this problem passed 49-1 in the Senate in May 2007. That bill too has been sent down the river, never to be seen again.

Another crucial reform proposal is to change the way Pennsylvania draws legislative and Congressional district boundaries. At least five bills addressing this problem currently sit in the House State Government Committee. For any of them to take effect in time for the next redistricting after the 2010 US Census, they will need to pass both houses this year, and again next session, to be placed on the ballot as a Constitutional Amendment. How much pressure does this put on the House State Government Committee to act? Apparently only enough to hold a single hearing on redistricting reform in March 2008—14 months after the first bill was referred to the Committee.

Fortunately, there is a way to get around this Cerberus of the General Assembly. Calling a limited state Constitutional Convention would allow any and all of these proposals to receive full discussion, and be voted on by elected delegates. In fact, there are multiple convention bills in both the House and the Senate awaiting consideration. Of course, for a convention to occur, one of these bills would likely have to enter, and exit, the House State Government Committee.

Reform advocates should not feel too daunted, though. Hercules once managed to out-wrestle Cerberus.

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Nathan A. Benefield is Director of Policy Research with the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.