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In the Pa. Senate, every day starts with a witty ditty

It's a little-known tradition in the Pennsylvania Senate, but it lends some spice to otherwise tightly scripted workings of the chamber, and it's been going on for at least 36 years.

Legislators gather in the State Capitol.
Legislators gather in the State Capitol.Read moreMatt Rourke / Associated Press

HARRISBURG — Every time the Pennsylvania Senate convenes in the state Capitol, senators filing in from all corners of the state get a bit of advice along with their daily agenda.

It may be: Think before you speak. Read before you think.

Or: Take action! An inch of movement will bring you closer to your goals than a mile of intention.

Or even this: If green veggies tasted as good as bacon, we would all eat more of them.

Beneath the Senate's official letterhead — but above the calendar of dozens of bill numbers stacked with legislative jargon that leads the Senate's voting for the day — there's always a dash of spice: a quote or saying for senators to ponder, handpicked by the chamber's parliamentarian and secretary.

It traces back at least 36 years, but no one knows when or why it started. Still, those words of wisdom, which sometimes read like missives from a fortune cookie, have become tradition.

"It's a small contribution to the legislative process, if that's even the right phrase for it," said Megan Martin, the secretary and parliamentarian, who has taken over the job of selecting the messages. "It's just something positive and small and minuscule. So if somebody reads a quote and it makes them feel good and kind of helps them — maybe they're having a bad day, or whatever the case may be."

Martin has been parliamentarian for six years, standing beside Lt. Gov. Mike Stack III each time the Senate convenes. She ensures that the commonwealth's procedures are followed correctly by all Senate members. Adding the sayings is a small part of her job — but one of her favorites.

During hard times, Martin said, she tries to pick quotations that inspire hope and compassion. Or she'll fashion them to play off upcoming holidays, or to give a nod to those in military service.

Some senators, at least, take notice.

"In the legislative business, doing the stuff that we do, sometimes you spend so much of your time focused on the pieces of legislation, the amendments, and all that kind of stuff, it's good to have a break," said Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.). "It helps you take a look at things a little bit differently."

Martin's office is stacked with books of quotations. She has more in her filing cabinet, keeping track of which ones she has used so far.

When Stack began as Senate president, he would read the quotes at the beginning of each session, Martin said.

Past lieutenant governors had done the same — especially on those painfully long days of deliberation when, around 2 a.m., legislators couldn't compromise, said Mark Corrigan, a member of the state Ethics Commission and Martin's predecessor as parliamentarian.

"They'd read it and say, 'Maybe we should follow the advice on the calendar,'" Corrigan said. "It would lighten up the mood."

Corrigan said that for each of the 30 years he was preparing the daily agenda, he never used the same quotation twice. That was a hard task before the internet. He and his team spent their downtime searching Reader's Digest for quote-worthy sentiments. His predecessor also had put the sayings atop each of the Senate's calendars.

The tradition is unique to the Senate. The daily House calendar offers no pithy advice to members.

Martin said she will never use a quotation to comment on the political climate. When the Senate and House are at odds, she also will not interject advice to ease or fuel the conflict.

And only a few times in her six years did she repeat a quotation on the calendar, usually to honor veterans.

Said Martin: "I really do try to have my quotes be ones that will have a positive impact, rather than start a ruckus in the building."

Contact Gillian McGoldrick at