Standing up to political gamesmanship on the House floor

(Click the image above for video from Wednesday's session)

When the House adjourned yesterday, I expressed my frustration that Speaker Turzai failed to allow me to speak in reference to House Bill 321. This bill, introduced by Representative Kate Klunk, seeks to add a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome to the list of reasons to restrict a woman’s right to obtain an abortion and would make it a felony for both the patient, as well as the doctor performing the procedure.

The bill reached the House floor yesterday on second consideration – meaning that this was the first time the bill was considered by the entire General Assembly and the only time it could be changed or re-referred to a different committee for review. Even though this bill would create a new third-degree felony – and despite Speaker Turzai’s insistence that the bill is a “crime bill” – it reached the House floor following its approval in the Health Committee. I rose, in a timely fashion, to request H.B. 321 be re-referred to the Judiciary Committee and stood waiting for the Speaker to acknowledge me for more than 15 minutes.

The Speaker ignored me when people at the rostrum informed him that I was standing to speak.

The Speaker ignored me when my colleagues across the House floor were shouting that I was standing to be heard.

The Speaker ignored me when my party’s leadership moved up to the rostrum to insist that he acknowledge that I was standing to be heard.

The Speaker refused to lift his gaze – and proceeded to run more bills – while I stood waiting for my right to be heard.

Only after second consideration of House Bill 321 concluded, and votes on two other bills had been called, was I finally acknowledged.

However, because he had ignored me and continued to consider other bills, the Speaker would only allow me to speak on a motion to reconsider H.B. 321 – denying me the opportunity to file a motion to re-refer the bill to the Judiciary Committee for further review, despite the fact that I had been waiting to speak on the matter since debate began. Before I could begin to explain to my colleagues why I was attempting to file the motion, I was cut off by the Speaker of the House. House Republicans voted against reconsidering H.B. 321 since “the bill was no longer under second consideration.”

As I was denied the opportunity to speak yesterday, I want to take the time now to share with you – and my colleagues – why this bill should be carefully considered by the Judiciary Committee.

Bills of this nature have already been ruled unconstitutional in several other states. In Indiana, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled a similar ban unconstitutional and “in clear derogation of federal law.” An injunction granted by the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Ohio prohibited a similar law from taking effect due to its unconstitutionality, concluding: “The state cannot dictate what factors a woman is permitted to consider in making her choice. The state's attempt to carve out exceptions to a categorical right where none exist fails as a matter of law.”

Considering these cases, the exorbitant legal fees similar lawsuits demanded, and the Speaker’s insistence that H.B. 321 should be understood as a crime bill, it is only appropriate that H.B. 321 be re-referred to the Judiciary Committee for the legal ramifications of this bill to be thoroughly considered.

Supporters have repeatedly tried to portray this bill as a piece of anti-discrimination legislation – an effort to protect the rights of Pennsylvanians with disabilities. However, as it is currently written, H.B. 321 includes no assistance for parents who might be expecting a child diagnosed with Down syndrome. If lawmakers are truly seeking to protect children with disabilities and support the families that will be caring for children with  a Down syndrome diagnosis, their proposed legislation must also focus on increasing support for families by providing expectant mothers with information when they receive a prenatal diagnosis and providing parents with the support services they need to raise children with genetic disabilities to lead fulfilling lives. Unfortunately, this bill ignores the fact that more than 13,000 Pennsylvanians are waiting to receive approved disability waiver benefits for essential supports services. Moreover, the Speaker refused to hear debate on amendments offered by Reps. Leanne Krueger and Dan Miller that would provide critical assistance.

In reality, House Bill 321 is an effort to broadly restrict the rights of women across our commonwealth, curtailing women’s access to vital health care, and denying a woman the right to make deeply personal choices about her own health and the health of her family.

Did I think I would literally find myself standing up for the rights of women in this commonwealth when I got up yesterday morning? No. Nor did I think I’d find myself a direct recipient of the political gamesmanship I’ve been fighting so hard against. Anyone who receives my weekly updates knows that I’m committed to good governance. This was a perfect example why.

Yesterday’s events reinforced the vital need for procedural rules reform in the House to ensure that leaders cannot wield their power to silence others. Failing to allow members to speak on legislation that will impact the lives of their constituents prohibits us from honoring the duty entrusted to us as representatives.

It is essential that we as legislators resist this injustice and dedicate ourselves to rooting out the rampant partisanship which has become the norm in our chamber. We must focus on reforming the House Rules in order to combat the deeply problematic power imbalances governing our discussion on the floor and work to ensure that no single legislator has the power to corrupt the entire process.

I am proud today and every day to serve the people of this commonwealth and will continue to fight for good governance. I was elected to serve as your voice on the House floor. I would not and will not be silenced.

Thank you all for your overwhelming support in this matter.