"In all forms of government the people is
- Edmund Burke
the true legislator."
The heart of Pennsylvania government is the General
Assembly. These are the men and women elected by the
people of the Commonwealth to serve as our state Senators
and Representatives. As voters, we give them the right
and responsibility to act on our behalf, expect them to be
knowledgeable of the issues facing our citizens, and to
do their best to lead us into the future.
The Pennsylvania Constitution, the laws of the state, and
the customs of our government form an often stormy ocean
across which our 253 legislators must navigate the ship
This section provides an overview of the history of our
state legislature, its structure, when and how it meets, who
its officers are, and the mechanisms used to run our
The General Assembly is the branch of Pennsylvania
government closest to the people. Each elected legislator
represents, serves, and is responsible to a specific portion
of the Commonwealth. It is up to the voters to determine
how well they reflect the wants and needs of their
constituencies and, through the election electoral process,
whether or not they will be allowed to continue to serve.
24. WHAT IS THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY?
Pennsylvania's General Assembly is the legislative branch
of government. Commonly called the state Legislature,
it consists of two bodies-the Senate and the House of
Representatives. The General Assembly's existence,
authority, and limitations are provided by Article II of the
25. WHAT IS A UNICAMERAL LEGISLATURE?
The word "cameral" comes from the Latin camera and
the Greek kameral, both meaning "chamber." Therefore,
a unicameral legislature consists of only one chamber or
26. WHAT IS A BICAMERAL LEGISLATURE?
A bicameral legislature has two chambers or legislative
Pennsylvania has had a bicameral legislature, consisting
of the Senate and House of Representatives, since 1790.
Prior to that date, Pennsylvania had a unicameral
legislature with only the House of Representatives.
27. HOW MANY STATES NOW HAVE A UNICAMERAL LEGISLATURE?
28. WHAT STATE HAS THE LARGEST STATE LEGISLATURE?
The New Hampshire Legislature includes 24 Senators and
400 state Representatives, for a total of 424.
29. WHAT STATE HAS THE SMALLEST STATE LEGISLATURE?
Alaska has the smallest bicameral legislature with 20
Senators and 40 state Representatives. Nebraska,
however, has a smaller total representation (49) since there
is only one chamber.
30. HOW MANY MEMBERS ARE THERE IN THE PENNSYLVANIA LEGISLATURE?
There are 253-50 Senators and 203 members of the
House of Representatives.
31. HAS IT ALWAYS HAD THIS NUMBER OF MEMBERS?
No. In 1967, the Pennsylvania Constitution was amended
to set the number of House members at 203.
When the House of Representatives first met in 1682,
there were 42 members. By the early 1700s, that number
dropped to 24 and then steadily increased to 76 by 1776.
In creating the Senate, the Pennsylvania Constitution of
1790 stipulated that this body should be no smaller than
one-fourth of the House of Representatives and no larger
than one-third, but it set no maximum for the House.
When the House reached 100 members in 1855, a
constitutional amendment in 1857 set that as the limit.
The Constitution of 1873 increased the Senate (then at
33 members) to 50 and set the House at a minimum of
200. Every county was guaranteed at least one member,
regardless of its population.
The House peaked at 210 members for five sessions from
1955 until 1963. In order to adhere to the U.S. Supreme
Court ruling of "one person, one vote," the Pennsylvania
Constitution was amended to provide for 203 House
members from districts "nearly equal in population." The
first House to meet that standard convened in 1967.
32. WHAT IS A SESSION OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY?
A session of the General Assembly means that both the
Senate and the House of Representatives are convened
for the transaction of business.
33. HOW OFTEN DOES THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY MEET?
The General Assembly is a continuing body during the
term for which its representatives are elected. It meets at
noon on the first Tuesday of January and then regularly
throughout the year.
34. IS THERE A LIMIT TO THE LENGTH OF A SESSION?
Yes, in a way. When the Constitution stipulates that the
General Assembly must meet in regular session annually,
that means the session of one year must adjourn by noon
of the first Tuesday of the following year. Two regular
sessions cannot meet at the same time.
The General Assembly must also adjourn by midnight,
November 30, in even-numbered years due to the
expiration of the terms of office of all House members
and half the Senate.
Before 1960, the General Assembly met in regular session
each odd-numbered year. The longest one was the 1955
session, which convened January 2, 1955, and adjourned
May 22, 1956. During this 17-month period, the
Assembly met in actual session on 168 days.
35. HOW MANY REGULAR SESSIONS HAVE THERE BEEN SINCE 1776?
The 178th regular session was convened on January 4,
1994. In the year 2000, the General Assembly will hold
its 184th session.
36. WHEN CAN THE GOVERNOR ADJOURN THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY?
The Constitution allows the Governor to adjourn the
General Assembly at "such times as he shall think proper,
not exceeding four months," when the House and Senate
disagree with respect to adjournment (see Article IV,
No Governor has ever exercised this power, and many
constitutional experts believe the provision only applies
to special sessions.
37. CAN THE GOVERNOR CALL A SPECIAL SESSION OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY?
Under the Constitution, the Governor can convene the
General Assembly "on extraordinary occasions" by
proclamation (see Article IV, Section 12).
The Governor can also call special sessions on petition
of a majority of the members of both the House and
Senate. The Senate can be convened by the Governor
for the transaction of executive business.
38. IS A SPECIAL SESSION OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY LIMITED IN ITS SUBJECT MATTER?
Yes. When the General Assembly is convened in a special
session, its members can only consider legislation on those
subjects designated in the Governor's proclamation (see
Article III, Section 12).
39. HOW MANY SPECIAL SESSIONS OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY HAVE BEEN CALLED?
There have been 34 special sessions.
At one point during the 1966 regular session, three special
sessions ran concurrently. At that time, the regular session
was limited only to fiscal matters, so in order to consider
other legislation deemed to be of a general emergency
nature, special sessions had to be called.
40. CAN SESSIONS BE HELD ANYWHERE OTHER THAN THE SENATE AND HOUSE CHAMBERS?
Yes, but the Constitution places two restrictions on this
action (see Article II, Section 14). Sessions must be held
in the City of Harrisburg, and if either body contemplates
a move, it must have the consent of the other.
In case of enemy attack or other emergency, the Governor
can declare an emergency temporary location.
41. UNDER THE PRESENT CONSTITUTION, HAS THE
LEGISLATURE EVER HELD SESSIONS ANYWHERE OTHER
THAN THE CAPITOL?
Yes. After the Main Capitol building burned on February
2, 1897, the Legislature met in the Grace Methodist
Episcopal Church on State Street in Harrisburg for two
years. In 1899, the Legislature temporarily moved to the
Cobb Building, a large, square, brick warehouse built on
the foundation of the destroyed Capitol. Because the
Legislature felt that building was not adequate, $4 million
was appropriated in 1899 for the construction of a new
That Capitol, built around the Cobb Building, was
completed in 1906 and dedicated by President Theodore
Roosevelt on Oct. 4 of that year.
In 1987, a joint session was held in Philadelphia in honor
of the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.
42. CAN EITHER HOUSE ADJOURN FOR ANY OF TIME WITHOUT THE CONSENT OF THE OTHER?
The Constitution prohibits either body from adjourning
for more than three days (Sundays excepted) without the
consent of the other (see Article 11, Section 14).
43. HOW ARE THE SENATORIAL AND REPRESENTATIVE DISTRICTS APPORTIONED?
The Constitution provides for the state to be divided into
50 senatorial districts and 203 representative districts.
Each is to be composed of compact and contiguous
territory as nearly equal in population as is practical. One
Senator and one Representative are elected from each of
the respective districts. No county, city, town, borough,
township, or ward is to be divided in forming these districts
unless absolutely necessary (see Article II, Section 16).
44. HOW OFTEN ARE THESE DISTRICTS REAPPORTIONED?
Every 10 years. A Legislative Reapportionment
Commission, headed by a nonpartisan commissioner,
conducts reapportionments in the year following each
federal decennial census (see Article II, Section 17a). This
provision was added to the Constitution by the limited
Constitutional Convention of 1967-68. Prior to this, the
General Assembly was required to do the reapportioning.
Reapportionment guidelines are established in the U.S.
Constitution. Additionally, federal and state statutes
45. HOW DOES THE LEGISLATIVE REAPPORTION COMMISSION WORK?
The commission consists of five members, four of whom
are the Majority and Minority leaders of both the Senate
and the House of Representatives (or deputies appointed
by each of them). Within 60 days after the official
reporting of the federal decennial census, these four
members must be certified by the President Pro Tempore
of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of
Representatives to the Secretary of the Commonwealth,
who is the state's elections officer.
Within 45 days, these four members must select the fifth
member, who serves as Chairman of the Commission.
This person must be a citizen of the Commonwealth but
cannot be a local, state, or federal official holding a paid
office. If the four members fail to choose a chairman
within that time, the state Supreme Court appoints the
The commission has 90 days to file a preliminary
reapportionment plan with the elections officer, and 30
days after the filing to make corrections to it.
Any person aggrieved by the preliminary plan has the
same 30-day period to file exceptions with the
commission. Then the commission has 30 days after the
exception was filed to prepare a revised reapportionment
plan. If no exceptions are filed, or if they are filed and
acted upon, the commission's final plan becomes law.
Any aggrieved person can appeal the final plan directly
to the state Supreme Court within 30 days. If it is
established that the final plan is contrary to law, the court
remands it to the commission for revision.
When the Supreme Court has finally decided an appeal,
or when the last day for filing an appeal has passed with
no appeal taken, the reapportionment plan has the force
of law. The districts as outlined in the plan are then used
in all elections to the General Assembly until the next
If the commission cannot meet the prescribed deadlines
for filing its preliminary, revised, or final plan, the Supreme
Court can extend the time periods if cause is shown. If
no proper cause is shown, the court can immediately
proceed to reapportion the Commonwealth on its own.
Qualifications and Terms of Office
46. WHAT IS A LEGISLATOR?
A legislator is a member of the General Assembly.
However, a member of the Senate is usually referred to
as a Senator, and a member of the House of
Representatives is referred to as a Representative.
47. HOW ARE SENATORS AND REPRESENTATIVES ELECTED?
They are chosen by popular vote of the people on the
first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in every
48. HOW LONG ARE THEIR TERMS?
Senators are elected for a term of four years and
Representatives for a term of two years. All 203 members
of the House and half of the Senate (25 members) are
elected every two years (see Article II, Section 3).
49. WHAT ARE THE QUALIFICATIONS NECESSARY TO BE ELECTED TO THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY?
Senators must be at least 25 years old and Representatives
at least 21 years old. They must be citizens and
inhabitants of the state for four years, living in their
respective districts for one year. They must reside within
their district during their term of office (see Article II,
50. HOW IS A VACANCY FILLED IN THE EVENT OF THE
DEATH OR RESIGNATION OF A MEMBER OF THE
Whenever a vacancy occurs in the General Assembly,
the presiding officer of the appropriate house issues a
writ of election, setting a date for a special election within
that district to fill the vacancy for the remainder of the
term (see Article II, Section 2).
51. CAN A MEMBER OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY BE EXPELLED?
Yes. Either body can expel a member with a two-thirds
vote. Anyone expelled for corruption can never run again
for election to either house (see Article II, Section 11).
52. CAN A MEMBER OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY BE APPOINTED TO A CIVIL OFFICE?
No. During the term for which he or she is elected, no
Senator or Representative can be appointed to any civil
office under the Commonwealth, such as judge of the
Court of Common Pleas, justice of the peace, member of
the Turnpike Commission, or Public Utility Commission.
53. CAN A MEMBER OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY RESIGN THAT OFFICE IN ORDER TO BE APPOINTED TO A CIVIL OFFICE?
No. The Constitution prohibits such appointments for
members of the General Assembly "during the time for
which he is elected." Resignation cannot nullify
constitutional intent and shorten the time during which a
member is not eligible for appointment to civil office.
A Senator or Representative can, however, resign his or
her office in order to be elected by the people to another
54. CAN A MEMBER OF CONGRESS SERVE AT THE SAME TIME IN THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY?
No. This is specifically prohibited by the Constitution
(see Article II, Section 6).
55. WHAT CRIMES DISQUALIFY A PERSON FROM BEING ELECTED TO THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY?
No person can be elected to the General Assembly who
has been convicted of:
These crimes would also disqualify a person from holding
any office of trust or profit in the Commonwealth.
- embezzlement of public monies (intentional and
fraudulent taking of money or property entrusted to
one's care for private or personal use);
- bribery (giving or receiving money, anything of value,
or any valuable service intended to influence a
person's discharge of a legal duty);
- perjury (making a false statement, verbally or in
writing, while under oath); or
- other infamous crimes (one that would render a person
incompetent as a witness or juror) (see Article II,
In addition, any member expelled from the General
Assembly is prohibited from future election to either
56. WHEN IS A MEMBER EXCUSED OR BARRED FROM VOTING IN THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY?
According to the Constitution, a legislator may not vote
on any bill or measure in which he or she has a private or
personal interest (see Article III, Section 13).
While the Constitution does not spell out what a private
or personal interest might be, this section was added to
the document at a time when members were representing
corporations seeking special legislation and special favors.
Over the years, presiding officers have held that the right
to represent one's constituency is of major importance,
and a legislator should not be barred or excused from
voting on matters of direct personal interest except in clear
cases. It must be a situation that affects the legislator
individually and not as a member of a certain class or
57. DO MEMBERS HAVE INDIVIDUAL SEATS ASSIGNED TO THEM?
Yes. Seats in the Senate are assigned by the President Pro
Tempore, usually according to seniority. Democrats sit
on the west side of the chamber, to the President's right;
Republicans sit on the left or east side of the chamber. In
the House, seating is also by seniority, with Democrats to
the right of the Speaker and Republicans to the left.
58. WHAT IS MEANT BY "SENIORITY RULE?"
It is customary that the member who has served longest
on the majority side of a committee becomes chairman
of that committee and also acquires additional influence.
OFFICERS AND KEY EMPLOYEES
59. WHO ARE THE PRINCIPAL OFFICERS OF THE SENATE AND HOW ARE THEY CHOSEN?
The principal officers are the President Pro Tempore, the
Secretary, and the Chief Clerk, and all are elected by the
Senate. As a constitutional officer, the President Pro
Tempore is the only one who is also a Senator. The
Secretary and Chief Clerk are statutory officers.
60. WHO PRESIDES OVER THE SENATE?
The Lieutenant Governor is President of the Senate by
authority of the Constitution (see Article IV, Section 4).
The Senate elects from its members a President Pro
Tempore to preside in the absence of the President. If
both the President and the President Pro Tempore are
absent, then the Majority Leader, or someone designated
by the Majority Leader, presides. When this happens,
the Majority Leader is vested with all the powers of the
President (except as specifically prohibited by the
Constitution or laws). This authority, however, does not
extend beyond the day's adjournment.
61. WHAT ARE THE DUTIES OF THE LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR WHILE PRESIDING OVER THE SENATE?
The President of the Senate takes the chair each day and
calls the Senate to order. The President's duties include
referring bills to committees, preserving order, preventing
personal reflections, confining members in debate to the
question at hand, and stating all questions. The President
signs all bills and joint resolutions passed by both houses
as well as all orders, addresses, writs, warrants, and
62. CAN THE LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR VOTE IN THE SENATE?
The Lieutenant Governor, as President of the Senate, can
cast a tie-breaking vote on any question except the final
passage of a bill or joint resolution, the adoption of a
conference report, or the concurrence in amendments
made by the House of Representatives (see Article IV,
63. HAS A PRESIDENT OF THE SENATE EVER RESIGNED?
Yes. John C. Bell resigned on January 2, 1947, 20 days
before the expiration of his term, in order to become
Governor. He replaced Governor Edward Martin, who
was elected to the United States Senate.
64. WHAT ARE THE DUTIES OF THE PRESIDENT PRO TEMPORE?
The Constitution provides for the President Pro Tempore
to perform the duties of the President of the Senate
(Lieutenant Governor) in case of the President's absence
or disability. Senate rules allow the President Pro Tempore
to exercise all powers and duties of the President.
In addition, he appoints the chairmen, vice chairmen,
and members of the committees, both standing and
65. DOES THE PRESIDENT PRO TEMPORE OF THE SENATE VOTE?
Yes. As a member of the Senate, the President Pro
Tempore participates in debates and votes.
66. WHO ARE THE PRINCIPAL OFFICERS OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES?
The principal officers in the House are the Speaker, the
Chief Clerk, the Parliamentarian, and the Comptroller.
Except for the Parliamentarian, all are elected by the
House, but the Speaker is the only officer who is a member
of that body.
67. WHO PRESIDES OVER THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES?
The presiding officer is the Speaker of the House, who is
nominated at a party caucus and chosen by a majority
vote of the members of the House of Representatives.
The Speaker may appoint a Speaker Pro Tempore.
68. WHAT ARE THE DUTIES OF THE SPEAKER?
69. COULD A PERSON OTHER THAN AN ELECTED REPRESENTATIVE SERVE AS THE SPEAKER?
- Presiding over the House of Representatives;
- Preserving order and decorum; deciding all questions of order;
- Signing all bills and joint resolutions passed by both houses;
- Referring all bills and resolutions to committees;
- Appointing the chairmen and vice chairmen of the standing committees;
- Appointing all special or select committees; and
- Voting on all questions.
No. The Constitution requires that the House select one
of its members as Speaker (see Article II, Section 9).
70. WHAT IS A PARTY LEADER?
In debate, members do not refer to Democrats and
Republicans but to the "Majority" and the "Minority" each
of which has a leader. The party leaders head the debate
and bring forward their respective party's programs or
policies. The leader's advocacy of or opposition to
proposed legislation indicates the party's stand.
The Majority Leader has enormous control over which
legislative programs are discussed and when.
71. DOES THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY ELECT THE MAJORITY AND MINORITY LEADERS?
No. The Majority and Minority leaders of the Senate and
House are not officers, and are therefore not elected by
the membership. The leaders are chosen by party
72. WHAT ARE THE DUTIES OF THE SENATE AND HOUSE "WHIPS"?
Like most of our parliamentary procedures, party "Whips"
originated in the British Parliament. For important
debates, kings and ministers made a great effort to bring
their followers together; this was referred to as "whipping
them in." An individual heading such an effort was known
as a "whipper in," eventually shortened to "whip."
Today, Whips are the eyes and ears of their respective
party's floor leaders, and it is their job to discern the
direction in which opinions are moving and to appease
any mutterings or discontent. Through the Whips, the
party system is used to conduct the business of the Senate
A Whip's most important task is to gather and hold
together the members of a party for united action when
important votes are to be taken.
73. HOW ARE ADMINISTRATIVE AND FINANCIAL POLICIES SET IN THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY?
In the House of Representatives, financial rules are
established by a majority vote of the members. Specific
policies are dictated by the Committee on Rules and the
Bipartisan Management Committee (BMC).
The BMC is responsible for implementation of these
policies as well as the administrative functions of the
House. This includes oversight of the Office of the Chief
Clerk (responsible for day-to-day operations of the House)
and the Office of the Comptroller (responsible for the fiscal
affairs of the House). Facilities, resources, and services
provided by the Chief Clerk and the Comptroller are
provided to all members and staff on an impartial basis.
The BMC consists of five members: the Speaker, the
Majority Leader and Whip, and the Minority Leader and
Whip. All actions of the BMC require the vote of at least
four of the five members.
Like the House, the financial rules of the Senate are
established by a majority vote of its members. Specific
policies are established by the Committee on Management
Operations, which is responsible for the Senate's
administrative and financial functions.
The Committee on Management Operations oversees the
Office of the Secretary (responsible for day-to-day
operations of the Senate) and the Office of the Chief Clerk
(responsible for the Senate's financial affairs).
The seven-member committee includes the President Pro
Tempore and the Majority and Minority Leaders, Whips,
and Appropriations Committee chairmen.
74. WHAT ARE THE DUTIES OF THE PARLIAMENTARIAN?
The Parliamentarian assists in rendering correct
parliamentary decisions and in ensuring that the practices
and precedents of the House are conducted according to
law. This officer must be well-versed in the rules and
precedents of the House in order to render sound
decisions at a moment's notice.
75. WHY ARE STANDING COMMITTEES NECESSARY?
Standing committees, as permanent units of the General
Assembly, serve as the workshops of the Legislature. It is
their duty to carefully study all bills referred to them and
to prepare bills to be reported with a favorable
recommendation to each house.
The Constitution requires that "no bill shall be considered
unless referred to a committee" (see Article III, Section
During an average session, more than 4,000 bills,
representing a wide range of subjects, are introduced in
both houses. Many of these bills are controversial and
require long debate and consideration of many
amendments. Without an effective committee system, it
would be impossible for the General Assembly to attend
to its business of enacting new laws, amending present
ones, appropriating money, investigating governmental
operations, and seeing to other duties.
76. HOW ARE THE MEMBERS OF THE STANDING COMMITTEES SELECTED?
In the Senate, the chairmen, vice chairmen and committee
members are chosen by the President Pro Tempore. Each
Senator completes a form to indicate committee
preferences, and that information is taken into
consideration by that official when making committee
In the House, a Committee on Committees (consisting of
the Speaker, 10 Majority members, and five Minority
members) recommends to the House the names of the
members of the committees. Chairmen and vice chairmen
are appointed by the Speaker.
These procedures are provided for in Senate and House
77. DO STANDING COMMITTEES HOLD PUBLIC HEARINGS ON ALL BILLS?
No. Each committee decides whether or not to hold
hearings on any particular legislation.
78. ARE COMMITTEE MEETINGS OPEN TO THE PUBLIC?
Yes. The "Sunshine Act" (Act 84 of 1986) makes all
committee meetings in which bills are considered or
testimony taken open to the public. This does not apply
to party caucuses or any Senate or House Ethics
79. DOES A STANDING COMMITTEE CONTROL THE
DISPOSITION OF THE BILLS THAT ARE REFERRED TO
Yes. Ordinarily, a committee's failure to act on a measure
spells its defeat.
80. CAN A COMMITTEE BE DISCHARGED FROM CONSIDERATION OF A BILL?
Yes. There are provisions in the rules of both the Senate
and the House to discharge a committee.
In the Senate, a measure can be discharged from
consideration within 10 legislative days of its referral only
with unanimous consent of the full Senate. After 10
legislative days, it can be discharged by a majority vote
of the members.
In the House, a bill cannot be discharged until 15
legislative days after its referral. A resolution to discharge
a measure must be passed by a majority vote of the House
81. ARE COMMITTEE RECORDS AND FILES OPEN TO THE PUBLIC?
Yes. The proceedings of all committee meetings and
records of votes taken on any measure are open to the
82. WHAT IS A SELECT COMMITTEE?
A select committee is established by the Senate or the
House for a special purpose and for a limited time. When
the select committee's function has been carried out and
a report made, it is automatically dissolved.
83. WHAT IS A CONFERENCE COMMITTEE?
Differences of opinion over legislation between the two
houses of the General Assembly are committed to
conference committees for settlement. This usually
happens when a bill passes one house with amendments
that are unacceptable to the other house.
The house that disagrees with the amendments will ask
for a conference, and the presiding officer then appoints
the conference members, or "managers." Three members
of the House and three from the Senate are named to the
committee-two from the majority party and one from
the minority. After deliberation, an identical report is
signed by at least two of the committee members from
each house and must be accepted or rejected as a whole
by both chambers.
If accepted by both houses, the bill is signed by the
presiding officers and sent to the Governor. Sometimes,
however, the conference committee fails to reach an
agreement. Unless all differences are finally adjusted,
the bill fails.
84. WHAT IS A COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE?
A committee of the whole is the entire membership of
the Senate or House sitting as a committee. Its purpose is
to permit more informal debate than could be held under
ordinary restricted rules of procedure. The presiding
officer appoints some other member to preside over a
committee of the whole.
This procedure has been very rarely used in the
Pennsylvania General Assembly.
Rules of Procedure
85. HOW ARE THE RULES OF PROCEDURE IN THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY DETERMINED?
The Constitution provides that "each house shall have
power to determine the rules of its proceedings" (see
Article II, Section 11).
The parliamentary practices of the Senate and House
come from six sources:
- the Pennsylvania Constitution,
- statutory law,
- rules adopted by the Senate and House,
- precedents established by the presiding officers of each house,
- Jefferson's Manual, which lists the rules and precedents of the U.S. House of Representatives, and
- Mason's Manual, containing the rules of procedure for legislative bodies.
86. WHAT IS A CAUCUS?
The word "caucus" is a political term denoting a special
form of party meeting. It originated in Boston in the early
18th century. At that time, it meant a political club where
public matters were discussed, arrangements were made
for local elections, and candidates for office were chosen.
Today, a caucus is a meeting of the members of a political
party in the U.S. Congress or a state legislature in which
party policy on proposed legislation is discussed and
87. WHAT IS A QUORUM?
A quorum is a majority of those members elected, sworn,
and living, whose membership has not been terminated
by resignation or action of the body.
88. HOW DOES A MEMBER OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OBTAIN PERMISSION TO SPEAK?
When a Senator wishes to speak, he or she rises, addresses
the presiding officer, and may not proceed until
When a Representative wishes to speak, he or she
addresses the Speaker and may continue when
89. ARE THERE ANY RESTRICTIONS ON DEBATE?
Debate must be confined to the question under
consideration. Statements on other subjects can only be
made by unanimous consent of the body. Members may
not speak more than twice on any question without the
consent of the chamber. There is no time constraint unless
there has been an agreement to limit debate. Debate can
be terminated by a motion for the previous question.
90. WHAT IS THE "PREVIOUS QUESTION"?
A motion for the previous question, if agreed to by a
majority of the members present, cuts off all debate and
brings the body to direct vote on the immediate question.
In the Senate, the motion must be made by not less than
four members. In the House, the motion must be made
and seconded by 20 members.
91. WHAT IS A FILIBUSTER?
The word "filibuster" originally meant a buccaneer (such
as those who plundered the Spanish colonies in America)
and later, military adventurers who led private armed
expeditions into foreign countries.
From this general idea, the term has come to be used to
refer to organized obstructive tactics in legislative bodies.
It is the practice of deliberately taking advantage of the
freedom of debate in order to delay or prevent action on
The call for the previous question virtually eliminates the
chance of a filibuster in the Pennsylvania General
92. WHAT BUSINESS CAN BE TRANSACTED BY UNANIMOUS CONSENT?
Practically anything can be done in either the Senate or
the House by unanimous consent, except when the
Constitution specifically prohibits it. For example, the
Constitution requires a roll call vote for the final passage
of a bill, so the presiding officer cannot consider a
unanimous consent request to waive this requirement.
Objection by one member defeats a request for
93. ARE VISITORS ALLOWED TO OBSERVE THE PROCEEDINGS IN THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY?
Yes. Both houses have visitors' galleries. Visitors are
subject to control by the presiding officers, and the
galleries can be cleared if there is disorder. The
Constitution provides for closing sessions to the public if
the business is such as should be kept secret (see Article
II, Section 13).
94. WHAT PROVISIONS ARE MADE FOR MEMBERS OF
THE MEDIA COVERING THE PROCEEDINGS OF THE
Special spaces are set aside in each house for accredited
representatives of the print and broadcast media. There
is also a newsroom in the Capitol for use by members of
95. WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MACE?
The history of the mace goes back to early Roman times.
It consisted of a bundle of birch or elm rods bound together
by a red thong with an ax blade protruding from the top
of the bundle. Officers carried it in advance of magistrates
and emperors to show authority. Occasionally the mace
was used to flog or to execute condemned Roman citizens.
In medieval times, the mace became an offensive weapon
made of iron or steel. It could break through the strongest
armor and was carried in battle by bishops to adhere to
the church canon forbidding priests to shed blood.
Purely ceremonial maces were first used in the 12th
century during the reigns of Philip II of France and Richard
I of England. They were carried by a royal bodyguard
called a sergeant at arms. Today's ceremonial maces are
used by legislative assemblies as a symbol of authority,
reminding the members of the power of the assembly to
preserve order and dignity.
The maces used by the Pennsylvania Senate and House
of Representatives are almost identical, with a slight
variation in size. Both are of solid mahogany topped by
a brass sphere engraved with the coat of arms of the
Commonwealth on each side.
In the Senate, the mace is placed on the rostrum behind
the President and to his right on the opening day of the
session and remains there until final adjournment. The
mace is only removed during session to escort the
President and members of the Senate to the House of
Representatives for a joint session or to lead a delegation
of members to funeral services for a fellow Senator or
former Senator. The sergeant at arms has full custody of
and responsibility for the mace.
In the House of Representatives, the mace is carried by
the sergeant at arms escorting the Speaker into the
chamber to open each session day. It then remains in a
pedestal to the right of the Speaker's desk until recess or
Aside from preserving peace and order, the mace
demonstrates the Legislature's respect for its own heritage
and law. It symbolizes the guarantee that those who
govern are also governed.
Bills, Acts, and Resolutions
96. WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A BILL AND AN ACT?
A "bill" is the constitutional designation of a proposed law
introduced into either house (see Article III, Section 1).
The term "act" refers to a bill that has been passed by
both houses and becomes law, whether by approval of
the Governor, lack of action by the Governor in the time
allotted by the Constitution, or by passage over the
Governor's veto by a two-thirds vote of both houses (see
97. WHAT IS A CALENDAR OF BILLS?
A calendar of bills, or legislative calendar, is a daily work
sheet of those measures reported from committees and
ready for consideration by the Senate and the House.
98. WHAT IS MEANT BY "CONSIDERING" A BILL?
The Pennsylvania Constitution requires that each bill be
considered on three different days in both the Senate and
the House (see Article III, Section 4). When a bill is
reported from committee to the full House or Senate, it is
given a first consideration, and if amended, is reprinted
to show any changes made by the committee.
After agreeing to the bill on first consideration, it is
advanced without debate to the calendar of bills on
second consideration, where it may be amended further.
99. WHY MUST TAX BILLS ORIGINATE IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES?
The constitutional provision stating that "all bills for raising
revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives"
is an adaptation of the English practice (see Article III,
Section 10). The principle is to make the purse strings
controlled by the body closest to the people.
This section of the Pennsylvania Constitution was taken
from an almost identical provision in the U.S. Constitution
written when U.S. Senators were chosen by the state
100. CAN THE SENATE AMEND TAX BILLS?
Yes. The Constitution says that "the Senate may propose
amendments as in other bills" (see Article III, Section 10).
101. WHAT RESTRICTIONS ARE PLACED ON ITEMS
CONTAINED IN THE GENERAL APPROPRIATION BILL?
The Constitution says that the general appropriation bill
can only authorize funds for the ordinary expenses of the
executive, legislative, and judicial departments; for
interest on the public debt; and for public schools (see
Article III, Section 11). All other appropriations, which
are the legislative authorizations necessary to allow an
expenditure of state government funds, must be made by
separate bill, each covering only one subject.
This section was added to the Constitution to end the
practice of putting an unpopular measure into the general
appropriation bill in order to compel members to vote
for it rather than defeat the general bill.
102. WHAT VOTE IS REQUIRED TO PASS BILLS APPROPRIATING MONEY TO CHARITABLE AND
A vote of two-thirds of the members in each house is
necessary for an appropriation to be made to any
charitable or educational institution not under the absolute
control of the Commonwealth (see Article III, Section 30).
This is known as a "non-preferred" appropriation.
103. WHAT APPROPRIATIONS ARE FORBIDDEN?
The Constitution forbids appropriations to any person or
community for charitable, educational, or benevolent
purposes or to any denominational or sectarian institution,
corporation, or association (see Article III, Section 29).
104. WHAT IS A DEFICIENCY BILL?
A deficiency bill authorizes funds to supplement
insufficient appropriations. Appropriations are normally
made in advance of a fiscal year on the basis of estimates
for that year. However, conditions may arise that exhaust
the appropriation before the end of that time.
105. WHAT IS A RESOLUTION?
A resolution is a form of written proposal used to make
declarations, state policies, or announce decisions when
some other form of legislative action is not required. For
example, a statute, or law, cannot be enacted by
Resolutions can be recognized by the use of the word
"resolved" in its acting or declaratory clause.
106. HOW MANY KINDS OF RESOLUTIONS ARE THERE?
There are three kinds of resolutions that can be acted
upon by the General Assembly. A simple resolution is
passed by one house only. A concurrent resolution must
pass both houses, and if it commits the state to action, it
must be sent to the Governor for consideration. A joint
resolution, which usually proposes an amendment to the
Constitution, requires action by both houses but is not
sent to the Governor.
107. HOW ARE VOTES TAKEN IN THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY?
Votes are taken two ways-voice and roll call. On a
voice vote, the presiding officer of either house asks all
those in favor to say "aye" and those opposed to say "no."
On a roll call vote in the Senate, the name of each member
is called in alphabetical order. Each member responds
either "aye" or "no," and the clerks record the vote
In the House of Representatives, the roll call vote is taken
electronically. The speaker unlocks the voting system
and each member votes by moving a switch on his or her
desk. The vote is recorded beside the members' names
on a large, lighted board-a green light for "aye" and red
for "no." A running total is kept of the votes being cast,
and then the board displays the final vote. When the
speaker determines that all members present have voted,
the results are recorded on a special roll call sheet.
108. WHAT IS A CONSTITUTIONAL MAJORITY?
A constitutional majority is the number of affirmative votes
required by the Constitution for a body to take a particular
action. For example, to pass legislation in the General
Assembly, a majority of the members elected is required.
In the Senate, with 50 members, 26 votes are a
constitutional majority. When a two-thirds vote is
required, 34 votes are needed.
In the House of Representatives, with 203 members, 102
votes make up a constitutional majority, and 136 are
needed for a two-thirds vote.
109. WHAT IS A SIMPLE MAJORITY?
A simple majority requires a quorum to be present and is
a majority of that group (see question #87). A simple
majority is enough to carry any proposition unless
otherwise specified by Constitution, statute, or rule.
Therefore, the smallest legal vote in the Senate could be
14 to 12; while the smallest vote in the House could be
52 to 50.
110. CAN ANY VOTE BY THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY BE RECONSIDERED?
The General Assembly does have the inherent right to
reconsider its vote on an action, with certain exceptions.
An action cannot be reconsidered when it is not possible
to cancel, nullify, or void its effects. In general, an action
cannot be cancelled when vested rights have been
acquired as a result of it (as in a contract); when rights
cannot be legally or constitutionally taken away; or when
the subject is beyond the control or out of reach of the
A motion to reconsider an action must be made on the
same day it was originally taken or within the next five
Actions Open to the Governor
111. WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A BILL IS PRESENTED TO THE GOVERNOR FOR SIGNING?
When a bill is sent to the Governor, one of four things
a) The Governor can sign it, whereupon it becomes a law.
b) The Governor can veto the bill. In this case, the
General Assembly can choose to vote on it again. A
two-thirds vote of all members in both houses will
override the veto.
c) The Governor can hold it for a time without taking
action-either signature or veto-(10 days while the
General Assembly is in session or 30 days after final
adjournment), after which it will automatically
become law. The Governor's refusal to sign a bill
may indicate disapproval of the measure but with an
acknowledgement that a veto is either useless or
politically unwise. It may also indicate that the
Governor is undecided about the bill's
d) The Governor can employ a line-item veto. This
means that any portion of a bill that appropriates
money for a particular use can be disapproved while
allowing for remaining parts of the bill to become law.
Those items vetoed by the Governor can still be
restored by a legislative override.
112. WHAT IS A VETO?
The word "veto" is a Latin verb that means "I forbid."
The Governor has the constitutional right to refuse to
approve any measure passed by the General Assembly,
and in such cases, returns it to the house of origin with a
statement of objections. A veto applies to an entire
measure, except for line-item vetoes of appropriations
bills (see question #111).
113. CAN THE GOVERNOR VETO A RESOLUTION PROPOSING A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT?
No. The Governor does not have the chance to either
approve or veto such a resolution. Since it is not a bill
enacting a law, it is not presented to the Governor for
A resolution proposing a constitutional amendment, after
passage in both houses, is filed with the Secretary of the
Commonwealth for submission to a vote of the people at
the proper time (see question #15).
114. IS THERE EVER A CEREMONY WHEN THE GOVERNOR SIGNS A BILL INTO LAW?
Usually the Governor signs bills without any particular
fanfare. On occasion, when a bill is of special public
significance, a ceremony for the signing will be held.
Sometimes more than one pen will be used by the
Governor to sign a bill, and these are given to the
individuals most interested in the legislation.
115. WHAT HAPPENS TO A BILL AFTER IT IS SIGNED BY THE GOVERNOR?
The signed bill is sent to the Secretary of the
Commonwealth where it is given an act number and
becomes known as a statute. The Secretary notifies the
director of the Legislative Reference Bureau, who has all
statutes printed and indexed in a bound volume called
Laws of Pennsylvania.
116. WHAT IS IMPEACHMENT?
A proceeding brought against a public official by the
General Assembly seeking that official's removal from
public office due to misbehavior in office.
117. WHO HAS THE POWER OF IMPEACHMENT?
The Constitution gives sole power to initiate the
impeachment process to the House of Representatives
(see Article VI, Section 4).
118. WHO CONDUCTS IMPEACHMENT TRIALS?
The Constitution requires all impeachments to be tried
by the Senate (see Article VI, Section 5).
119. WHAT VOTE IS NEEDED FOR IMPEACHMENT?
No one can be convicted in an impeachment trial without
a two-thirds vote of the Senate members present.
120. WHO CAN BE IMPEACHED?
According to the Constitution, the Governor and all other
civil officers are liable for impeachment for any
misbehavior in office (see Article VI, Section 6).
121. WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF IMPEACHMENT IN THE PENNSYLVANIA GENERAL ASSEMBLY?
Pennsylvania has not often used the impeachment
process, probably because citizens are wary of political
trials. The House of Representatives demands very clear
and serious evidence before it will begin the impeachment
The first impeachment was in 1685, barely three years
after the founding of the unicameral Colonial House.
Nicholas More, a physician and the second Speaker of
the House, was expelled from the body and removed by
the Governor as judge of the Provincial Court.
In 1803, the House impeached three Pennsylvania
Supreme Court judges, but the Senate acquitted them.
On three different occasions in 1816, the House voted to
impeach Judge Walter Franklin. But his attorney, James
Buchanan, (only 25 and just completing two years as a
Representative) argued brilliantly to convince the General
Assembly that it should undertake impeachment only in
the most dire circumstances. Buchanan later became the
15th President of the United States.
Efforts were made to impeach Governor George H. Earle
during the Great Depression of the 1930s for failing to
send the state police to arrest unemployed bootleg coal
miners in northeastern Pennsylvania. The House,
however, did not consider the charge serious enough.
On May 24, 1994, Rolf Larsen, Justice of the Supreme
Court of Pennsylvania, was impeached by the House. As
of the printing of this book, he was awaiting trial in the
122. WHAT IS LOBBYING?
Lobbying is a long-standing practice in all legislative
bodies whereby both private and public groups attempt
to influence government policy.
123. WHAT IS A LOBBYIST?
A lobbyist is someone who tries to influence the voting
of legislators, often on behalf of a group of like-minded
individuals or organizations. Since much of this work is
done by personal contact, and since legislators may not
be approached on the floor of either chamber while in
session, the contact is often made in the offices and lobbies
of the Senate and House.
Lobbyists who are compensated for their services must
register with the Secretary of the Senate and Chief Clerk
of the House of Representatives.
124. HOW DOES LOBBYING BENEFIT THE LEGISLATURE?
Lobbying plays a vital role in our form of government.
The complexities of modern life are evidenced by the
large number of bills brought before the Legislature each
session. It is impossible for legislators to know the
problems confronting all the various groups representing
the citizens of the state.
Members often confer with lobbyists for information and
technical details concerning the potential effects of
pending legislation. It is of great value to get the point of
view of a farmers' or bankers' association, a labor union,
senior citizens, or any other group concerned with