HARRISBURG - For 101/2 minutes, it appeared that the state House of Representatives would operate for the next two years under a new, iron-clad ethics rule barring members from being paid by lobbying firms.

The idea received a unanimous vote - 198-0 - late Wednesday as representatives were setting internal operating rules for the new legislative term.

Then Democrats had second thoughts and flexed their majority muscle, 100-98, to undo the measure, which could have cost several legislators lucrative side jobs.

The episode raises questions about whether legislators are indeed being paid to lobby. It also amounted to a public embarrassment for Democrats, who control the lower chamber.

"

Incompetence

is the kindest word you can use to describe this," said Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising Pennsylvania, a Harrisburg-area public interest group.

Here's how the situation, unusual even by Harrisburg standards, unfolded:

At 8:47 Wednesday night, the House voted overwhelmingly to suspend its rules and allow a vote on a just-drafted amendment. Less than 90 seconds later, members unanimously endorsed this simple restriction: "Members may not receive compensation for affiliating with or being employed by a lobbying firm registered with the Department of State."

Then Democrats, who hold a 104-99 majority, started asking themselves what they had really voted on. Democratic staff lawyers weighed in. At 9:06, the House voted to revote on the measure and later, along mostly party lines, ruled that what they had passed only minutes earlier was actually unconstitutional.

"This was a bright-line standard that legislators shouldn't be paid by lobbyists," said Rep. John Maher, a Republican from Pittsburgh who offered the rule change. By defeating the idea, Maher said, Democrats "trampled on the public's faith in the House."

Some Democrats insist that Republicans tried to pull a partisan fast one and that the idea they initially embraced was flawed.

House Majority Leader Todd Eachus acknowledged that the episode was regrettable, but insisted that it was a product of what he described as a "perfect vortex of problems."

For one thing, the House's computer software for bills and amendments failed Wednesday. Then, legal opinions from staff differed as to whether Maher's amendment was constitutional.

And all of that was on Eachus' first real day as floor leader.

"I give myself a C-minus," said Eachus (D., Luzerne). "I can assure you that we are going to do better next week."

In Pennsylvania and many other states, legislators are allowed to hold other jobs, and many do. Some are accountants. Some own small businesses. Some sell insurance.

"The state Ethics Act doesn't prescribe the types of firms that legislators may be associated with in their private capacities," said Robin Hittie, chief counsel for the state Ethics Commission.

That law, however, prohibits public officials from using the authority of one's office, employment or confidential information for financial gain.

Capitol observers said they could not point to any House member who works directly for a firm that only lobbies, and no House member is registered as a lobbyist with the state.

But several representatives - including Montgomery County Democrats Josh Shapiro and Mike Gerber - work as lawyers for firms that have government relations or lobbying arms.

Gerber works as an associate for WolfBlock L.L.P. and Shapiro is of counsel for Stradley, Ronon, Stevens & Young L.L.P.

In interviews yesterday, both men said they supported what they believed was the intent of the bill: to restrict members from being lobbyists. But they said the measure, on closer examination, was vague and could limit members from teaching at universities that also employ lobbyists.

"Ensuring that House members are not paid as lobbyists has merit, but in a more careful read of the language, it became clear that it was inexact," Gerber said.

The two Democrats - both in their third terms - acknowledged that as drafted, the measure might have cost them their outside source of income.

Both say they have never taken a position legislatively that was designed to benefit their firms.

"I do absolutely nothing related to Pennsylvania government," Shapiro said of his legal work.

So where does that leave the issue?

Eachus, the majority leader, said he would meet with his top aides next week to consider whether to reopen the debate over the House rules.

Meanwhile, Rep. Tony DeLuca (D., Allegheny) said he planned to reintroduce legislation to limit lawmakers' outside earned income.

"When you have attorneys, you have insurance people, when you have accountants working for these different outfits, there's a tendency to lean their way because of the fact they're in that industry," DeLuca told the Associated Press. "And I don't think that does the public justice."

Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com.