It’s not easy making laws in Pennsylvania. The state House of Representatives wants you to know that, so they published a booklet called “Making Law Pennsylvania” to help citizens understand how it’s done. Page three includes an explanation of the separation of powers:
“[T]he General Assembly can enact law only with the participation of the Governor, who heads the Executive Branch. The Governor can reject a proposed law by using a veto; however, the General Assembly can override the veto if it has enough votes. In this way, power is evenly distributed, or balanced, between the House and the Senate and between the General Assembly and the Executive Branch. These constitutional safeguards are some of the famous ‘checks and balances’ you probably first learned about in school.”
That sounds like a nice summary of how the legislative process is supposed to work in Harrisburg. Unfortunately, some of our state legislators might need to go to summer school to relearn their “checks and balances.”
Recently, Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a massive election reform bill (House Bill 1300), which would have required voters to show ID each time they vote, enabled early in-person voting, and limited the use of ballot drop boxes, among other changes. Democrats have objected to the bill, arguing that it would make it harder to vote, thus disenfranchising voters.
The bill passed the General Assembly, but not with a two-thirds majority, which is needed to override Gov. Wolf’s veto. The GOP author of the bill has said he won’t consider new election legislation until Gov. Wolf’s term is over in 2023. As we learned in school, that means the bill is dead, right? Not so fast.
Some of our elected representatives think they know another way to enact laws that bypass those pesky checks and balances. Even before Gov. Wolf vetoed the election reform bill, these crafty legislators proposed to amend the state constitution, repealing mail-in voting and requiring that voters show ID before casting a ballot. Guess why? Because the governor doesn’t get to veto constitutional amendments. Instead, the Republican majorities in the House and Senate can pass a bill with no support among Democrats, and then it goes to the voters for a final vote. This process is lengthy because the same bill must first pass in two consecutive sessions of the legislature. But Republicans may be willing to play the long game if it means they can enact new voter ID requirements or repeal the mail-in voting law they enacted with bipartisan support just two years ago.
Republican lawmakers defend this end-run around the governor by saying they just want to let voters decide. But who gets to decide which issues should go before the voters and which ones must follow the normal legislative process we learned about in school? Turns out, it’s the same legislators who failed their lesson on checks and balances.
More importantly, let’s not forget the state constitution is the foundation of our rights as citizens and, as stated in Article I, Section 2 of that document: “All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety and happiness.” We the people gave the General Assembly limited authority to enact laws that do not conflict with our fundamental rights. We did not say they could abuse our constitution to enact partisan laws for their own political benefit.
So, here’s the first lesson Republican lawmakers need to learn this summer. If the constitution doesn’t seem to allow something that would benefit the people — let’s say, an independent citizens redistricting commission to tackle gerrymandering, for example — then it might be a good idea to change the constitution. (I helped draft that proposed amendment on behalf of Fair Districts PA; it did not pass.) But if our constitution does not prohibit what you want to accomplish, then leave it alone and stick with the legislative process we learned about in school. If you can’t get the governor’s support to change the law, and you don’t have the votes to override his veto, that only means constitutional checks and balances are working just fine.
Patrick Beaty is an attorney based in Huntington Valley and legislative director of Fair Districts PA. He served more than 20 years in state government under three governors, including as legislative counsel to Gov. Robert Casey.