Latest Issue

County Hall Corner: The Pickle of Pennsylvania Politics

My wife gives away her Southern roots from time to time with her vocabulary, such as when she uses a word like “catawampus.” It means “all screwed up.” I think we might be looking at a “Catawampus Congress” in Harrisburg these days.

It started with convening the 2023-2024 legislation session of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, held on January 3rd of this year. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is the lower house of the bicameral Pennsylvania General Assembly. There are 203 members elected for two-year terms from single-member districts. At that time, the Republican Party held a two-representative majority, 102-100, with one vacancy.

Yet, in strange circumstances, the Republicans chose a Speaker of the House from the Democratic Party, Rep. Mark Rozzi. This political Pearl Harbor resulted in Republicans losing all their leverage quickly as the following month there were three vacant House seats, caused by one death and two state House members obtaining higher office, which were all won by Democrats in special elections.

But then, in March, Democratic Rep. Mike Zabel resigned under growing pressure from sexual harassment accusers — and the chamber was tied again at 101-101. Zabel’s constituency was largely Democrats, so it was not a surprise that six weeks later, a special election for his seat was won by the Democrats, and thus they are up by one again, 102-101, giving them back their majority.

This held up for four months until yet again (!), on Monday, July 24th, the Democrat State Rep. Sara Innamorato of Allegheny County announced that she had resigned from office to focus on her run for Allegheny County chief executive in November. Her departure means the state House will yet again, for the third time in seven months, be tied at 101-101.

So, if you are keeping score, it went in January from R-102-D-100, February D-102–R-101, March D-101–R-101, April D-102–R-101, and now here in early August, we are in a dead heat again, D-101–R-101.

The special election for Innamorato’s seat could go either way, given that this district has flipped between Republicans and Democrats in the past few cycles. It will be held on September 19th, and the state House is not set to return until a week after that.

Now, the muck in the mire of all this is that this honorable institution cannot seem to get a budget passed. Amazingly, Governor Josh Shapiro reached an agreement with the Republicans by including a provision that would provide students attending the lowest-performing 15% of schools with state-sponsored scholarships to attend the school of their choice. This was something Republicans in the General Assembly had been pursuing for some time and thus were pleased with this compromising gesture from a governor from the other party. It would seem that this win-win would be great kudos for both political parties.

Yet, in this wild and wacky year in Pennsylvania state government, there had to be a glitch, and sure enough, it happened. Special interest groups created an intense pressure campaign led by the House Democrats to force the governor to back off his promise to the Republicans, thus tanking the proposed budget.

What happens next? Apparently, nothing until the September 19th election and then the follow-up assembly of either a Republican or Democratic-controlled State House. Either way, it has been a Catawampus Congress. It is not just a pickle, but a sour pickle to boot.