Democracy is messy but effective, complicated but repetitive. To demystify it, here are a couple of basics:
Local governments in Pennsylvania are organized into many subcategories. There are municipalities of several different types, each of which are typically chartered or incorporated, meaning that they have authority through the state legislature. In Pennsylvania, local governments are cities (there are 57), boroughs (there are 956), and townships (there are 1,546) – and, fun fact, there’s only one remaining town (the Town of Bloomsburg). Each of these generally have similar governing structures whether that’s a board of commissioners or a council.
These governing bodies meet regularly and are required by law to post the time and location of their public meetings. It is often possible to make public comments at those meetings, which is an option for raising an issue, but generally it is better to request private meetings to allow more time for discussion. If a local government would like to take action on an issue, they will direct their solicitor (i.e., their lawyer) to draft an ordinance or resolution, which will then be posted for public comment (this is a great time to engage supporters to write letters and do media outreach) and then vote at a public meeting.
Remember the song “I’m Just a Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock? Same thing.
Pennsylvania adheres closely to the federal system so if you understand one, you understand the other. The state House of Representatives serves two-year terms, the Senate four-year terms, and there are no limits on the number of terms these elected officials can serve. The Pennsylvania legislature is a full-time legislature, meaning that they meet year-round, generally from Monday through Wednesday two weeks a month. The session schedule is posted in 6- to 12-month blocks, so you can easily see when they’re in session. Check out https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/home/session.cfm.
Bills are introduced in one or both chambers (meaning the House or the Senate, or the House and the Senate) and are immediately referred to a committee based on subject matter. The House introduces nearly 3,000 bills every session. The Senate, 1000 bills per session. Less than 10% of bills introduced ever receive a vote and only about 1% make it to the Governor for signature.
If a committee takes action on a bill, it will either schedule a vote or a hearing. In many states, a hearing is the first step to move a bill. In Pennsylvania, if there’s a hearing, that’s often a signal that the bill will not run that session. In Pennsylvania, the majority committee chair (the chair that belongs to the political party that holds a majority of seats) has exclusive authority in deciding which bills to hold a hearing or vote on, and how often to hold meetings. Scheduling hearings is an often-used way to appease a sponsor without committing to move the bill. However, sometimes a hearing can generate enough interest to get the bill moving.
If voted out of committee, the bill will be assigned to the Rules & Executive Nominations Committee or Appropriations Committee, though rarely both, for a quick review. The Rules & Executive Nominations Committee is made up of the leadership of both parties and is a reviewing body for one last stop before a vote of the full chamber. Changes made in the Rules & Executive Nominations Committee are either meant to avoid a fight on an amendment on the floor or to cleanup amendments, but generally the bills are quickly passed without discussion and the vote is procedural. The Appropriations Committee is made up of members of both parties and is charged with reviewing the financial impact of a bill before the final vote. Generally, this is just a procedural stop; however, amendments can be made in certain circumstances so it’s important to keep a close eye on the process.
The bill is then brought before the whole chamber for a vote. The bill is given three considerations. With the first consideration, the bill is read out loud to give the members warning of an intent to vote. On the second consideration, the bill is allowed to be amended. On the third consideration, the body decides whether to pass the final bill. The rules are slightly different in the House and Senate, but the structure is largely the same.
If the bill is passed, then the process is repeated in the other chamber.
If the bill passes both chambers, it goes to the Governor – who can sign it, veto it, or allow it to pass automatically without the executive office’s signature.
If a bill has special significance or is media worthy, the Governor may do a signing ceremony, which gives everyone a chance to celebrate its passage publicly!
The federal structure is largely the same as Pennsylvania’s but on a much larger scale given there are more than twice as many House members. The staff is larger in Congress and the number of bills even larger than the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Generating interest in an issue in Congress is therefore a much bigger task in some ways, but the extra staff may mean more guidance from the sponsor’s office than you would expect from the state legislature.