Overview of State Legislative Process

By the Pennsylvania Economy League

As the federal government gives up some of its power and responsibility to the state governments, there will be a lot of decisions that will need to be made by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Whether it is the creation of new legislation, the authorization of new programs and policies, or the approval of the state budget, understanding how the General Assembly functions is an important element in working effectively in Harrisburg.

Even to veteran observers, Pennsylvania's state government decision-making process can appear to be a vast and complex system of committees, sessions, caucuses, subcommittees, bill versions, procedures, and issues. This complexity provides an advantage to seasoned veterans - they know the ins and outs of the legislative process, and they have an ability to work within the process to make sure that their priorities get the utmost consideration. As with any undertaking, doing your homework and trying to understand the process from the perspective of the General Assembly member are often as important as the specifics of a bill or program that you are advocating.

Terms of Office

The House of Representatives and the Senate, 203 and 50 members respectively, make up the Pennsylvania General Assembly. House members are elected to two year terms, while Senate members serve for four years. Senate terms are staggered, so that every two years half of the body is facing re-election.

Legislative Sessions

Every two years, the legislature is reorganized following the general election, with the legislative session lasting for two years. Legislation introduced during a session must be passed within that session; if it is not, it must be reintroduced as a new bill in the next session.

Organization and Leadership of the Legislature

At the beginning of a new session, each party elects its leaders, who are responsible for setting the policy direction and directing the political activities for each party. In the House, the majority party nominates a Speaker of the House, and elects a Floor Leader (referred to as Majority Leader), a Caucus Chairperson, a Whip, a Policy Chair, an Appropriations Chair, and various other assistants. The minority party has a similar structure, with the obvious exception of not electing a speaker. In the Senate, the structure is similar, with the majority party electing a President Pro Tempore who is the lead officer of the Senate. In addition, the Lieutenant Governor is considered the President of the Senate. The Lt. Governor presides over Senate sessions, and can vote to break ties on procedural issues.

In the 1997-98 session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the Republican Party is in the majority of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The officers and leadership for both houses are found in the above tables.

Creating Legislation

The process for creating legislation is not much different from that at the federal level. A legislator or a group of legislators sponsors an idea, which could come from a variety of sources, and send their proposal to the Legislative Reference Bureau, who then researches the idea and drafts a bill accordingly. The idea for a bill may come from lobbyists, former bills, interest groups, business community, or any other interested party. Thousands of bills are introduced in the General Assembly in a given legislative year, but only a handful are signed into law. For example, in the 1993 and 1994 session, 5,126 bills were introduced by the House and Senate and only 354 of them, or 7 percent, became law.

Assigning Legislation to a Committee. After the bill is introduced, the Speaker of the House assigns proposed legislation to a Standing Committee and copies are distributed to members of the House and made available to the public. You can obtain a copy of a bill by calling (717) 787-2372 and your local legislator should know the printer's number so you can get the correct copy. The printer's number of a bill, found in fine print under the bill number, is important because it is how you identify which version of the bill you are dealing with. Bills go through constant revisions and amendments, so having the correct version of bill can spare you an embarrassing situation.

The Standing Committee reviews the bill and may do one or more of the following:

  • Refer it to subcommittee for further study. Subcommittees specialize in various issues and may recommend further action to the Standing Committee. A temporary, special-purpose Select Committee may be established to further study a problem or issue;
  • Hold a public hearing anywhere in Pennsylvania.
  • Hold public committee meetings.

After taking initial action, the Standing Committee can set the bill aside (or delay taking action by tabling the bill), amend, defeat, or accept it. The majority of bills never leave the Standing Committees for a variety of reasons: poor policy, too narrow a focus, the influence of powerful interest groups, and others. Committee chairs in Pennsylvania have a great deal of discretion and power - most bills die when they are assigned to a committee that has no intention of taking any action. You can often discern the wishes of the leadership by which committee a bill is assigned to. If your favorite bill is assigned to a committee where the chair is not a supporter, it is likely that your bill will never see the light of day. It is a time-honored legislative strategy in Pennsylvania to use committee assignments to influence the chances of a particular piece of legislation ever reaching the floor of either house of the General Assembly.

Reporting Legislation to the Floor and Caucuses. Once the approved bill leaves the Standing Committee, it is reported to the House floor, but usually ends up in a caucus session. Here, each party has the opportunity to discuss the bill further. The Caucus leaders try to muster enough votes to defeat or pass a bill. Majority and Minority floor leaders can request to discuss the bill any time until a final vote is taken.

In Pennsylvania, much of the debate and action on a piece of legislation is determined in the caucus meetings. In these meetings, the leadership shapes a bill, and the respective caucuses set their strategies and plans.

Consideration of A Bill. The Constitution requires a bill to be considered on three separate days so that there is ample time for the public to comment and voice their opinions. The first consideration is just an introduction - no debates, no amendments, no vote. Fifteen legislative days (days in which the House or Senate are in session) must pass between the first and second consideration. The bill is then considered again and amendments can be added but the members do not debate the merits of the bill or vote on it. The bill is referred to the Appropriations Committee if state funds are involved. Finally, the bill is considered a third time, at which time any floor debates occur and amendments are added. At the close of third consideration, a vote is taken and if a constitutional majority approve (generally, one more vote than 50 percent of those voting), the bill is passed. On some appropriations bills, a two-thirds majority is required for passage.

The bill is then sent to the other house of the General Assembly, where the same procedure is followed, but if amendments are added, it is referred back to the originating body for consideration. If no agreement on the changes is made, the bill may go to a Conference Committee for a compromise. A Conference Committee is a joint, six member, bipartisan House-Senate committee which attempts to correct the bill so that both bodies agree to support it. Once the Conference Committee agrees on compromise language, the bill must be passed in its final form, without amendment, by both houses before it can be sent to the Governor for his signature.

Sending the Bill to the Governor. Upon agreement of both bodies, the bill goes to the Governor who can do one of the following:

  • Sign the bill and make it law.
  • Permit the bill to become law without signing it.
  • Veto the bill, or veto specific items using a line-item veto.

If the Governor vetoes the bill, the General Assembly can override it with a two-thirds majority. If the Governor allows the bill to become law, the bill becomes "An Act of the General Assembly" and is available for distribution to the public.