Naked power grab? Pa. GOP-controlled legislature Increasingly pushing constitutional amendments

Pennsylvania Politics

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Since Pennsylvania’s constitutional convention in 1968, there have been 46 constitutional amendments passed by voters. But the pace has certainly quickened recently, and it won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

“This would seek to add the disapproval of regulation to the constitution,” Pa. House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R) said. That is one of three constitutional amendments proposed just last week alone.

“It’s unfortunate we have to go to amending the constitution,” Rep. Rob Kauffman (R-Franklin) said. It’s the latest trend with legislative Republicans. Kauffman says they’re frustrated by what he calls executive order over-reach by Governor Wolf. “And you have a leftist court that will rubber-stamp what they do. We are forced to allow the people to decide what belongs in their constitution”

And the people have gotten lots to decide lately, passing three amendments just this year. It wasn’t always this way.

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From 2000-2013 there was just one amendment. In the past eight years, there have been nine, with more on the way. “Our framers gave us this ability and this mechanism to amend the constitution to let the people ultimately decide if those amendments are something they want to be put in the constitution,” Rep. Andrew Lewis (R-Dauphin) said.

Democrats say the democratic process is in jeopardy. “Taking things to the voter is important but the voters did something important. They voted for the governor. They voted members of the state house, they voted for members of the state senate. Let us do our jobs. Constitutional amendments circumvent that process and something we do not need to do on a regular basis,” Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) said.

Critics also say Republican lawmakers are wrestling power from the governor to empower themselves. The Governor’s office says this is “A naked power grab by Republicans in the General Assembly to completely upend the separation of powers.”

“We aren’t clipping the wings of the governor. The people of Pennsylvania will be clipping the wings of the governor,” Kauffman said.

But amendments may just be the latest skirmish in a larger partisan war. “Sadly, it shows how we’re drifting apart in our body politics and not coming together to address the issues and concerns of Pennsylvanians,” Harris said.

Constitutional amendments must pass both chambers in two consecutive sessions and then go to the people. That is no easy path but it’s apparently been a lot easier lately.

The Governor’s Office issued the following statement in response to constitutional amendments:

As I noted to you earlier this month when the Republicans introduced their legislation calling for constitutional amendments to limit the governor’s power, these efforts naked power grab by Republicans in the General Assembly and would completely upend the separation of powers that has guided the commonwealth for its entire history. The current system—where the legislature passes laws, and the governor directs the Executive branch in the implementation of those laws—is similar to the separation of powers at the federal level as contained in the U.S. Constitution. Since our state’s founding, there have been governors and legislatures that have not seen eye to eye. Throughout our history, they have addressed those differences through the existing legislative process. What is new about this huge increase in partisan amendments to the Constitution is a willingness by the General Assembly to abandon the checks and balances of the existing process, and attempt to seize power by simply changing the rules. Unfortunately, the Republican General Assembly is failing Pennsylvanians this fall. Instead of passing bills that help workers, families, and businesses, they’re wasting time and taxpayer money on a strategy of legislative overreach to advance their far-right agenda to relitigate the 2020 election, dismantle public health, restrict a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions, and more. These efforts are ideology-based and do nothing to support family-sustaining jobs, improve our economy and our environment, and move Pennsylvania forward. There are plenty of good bills that can truly benefit our commonwealth and the governor urges the Republican-led legislature to use the remaining few days to move commonsense bills forward, and to prioritize them further in the new year. 

Elizabeth Rementer, Press Secretary, Office of the Governor

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